POPEYE, THE SALTY, dockside, rough, tough pugilist with a heart of gold, this year is celebrating his 50th anniversary of settling arguments.

The famed comic strip character first appeared on February 17, 1919 as a minor character in a comic strip called "Thimble Theater" created by the late E. C. Segar.

King Features annonced recently that it has licensed animation rights to "Popeye" to Hanna-Barbera Productions which will produce at least 16 new half-hour programs for CBS, as well as an hour-long animated, primetime Christmas Special for 1978.

Also to help add to the popularity of the one-eyed lovable ruffian, King Features has licensed Paramount Pictures to do a live movie.

Cartoonist-writer Jules Feiffer is at work on the script.

Dustin Hoffman has discussed playing Popeye but has yet to sign a contract, according to some close to the project.

"It should be a lot of fun," said Ted Hannah of King," I heard they are trying to get Lily Tomlin to play Olive Oyl."

Elzie Crisler Segar, the cartoonist who would never tell anyone his first or middle name while he was alive, was born in 1894 in Chester, Ill. Crisler learned cartooning by taking the once-famous Evans correspondence course.

While studying he held many jobs, including motion-picture projectionist. As such he saw and was heavily influenced by the works of Charlie Chaplin.

Segar would tell people that the Chaplin comedies were one of his principal inspirations. A lot of Chaplin's troubles with big bullies are reflected in Popeye's problems with the huge black-bearded Bluto, who was once called Brutus.

The first cartoon job Segar landed was on the old Chicago Herald drawing "Charlie Chaplin's Comic Capers."

The Chicago Herald ceased publishing and Segar moved to the Evening Amerian where his talent was spotted by Arthur Brisbane, a top Hearst lieutenant, who was editor of the syndicate that later became King Features.

Brisbane brought Segar to New York and put him to work on a strip called "5.05," a comedy about suburban commuters.

One of his leading characters had the same shape that eventually became the hamburger-eating "Wimpy."

Segar was a fishing enthusiast and almost every afternoon when the strip was finished he and a couple of cartoonists would go over to the East River docks and fish.

When word got back to the editors about this "goldbricking," he was called on the carpet and told to use his time for another strip, and "Thimble 'Theater" was born.

In 1928, nine years after the strip began, Segar had the Oyls, Olive and her brother Castor, along with her boyfriend Ham Gravy preparing for a trip to Dice Island with their magic whiffle hen, Bernice.

They had a big yacht and needed a sailor to help out.

Walking the docks Castor spotted an odd-looking tar and asked, "Hey there, are you a sailor?"

"Ja think I'm a cowboy?" the sailor answered.

And Castor turned heel saying, "Okay. You're hired."

Popeye in those days was not the man he is today. As a matter of fact, he was a coward. A couple of weeks after he sailed with the Oyls, Castor Oyl chased Popeye up a mast.

Suddenly Popeye struck his first punch with one of those big hammy arms, knocking Castor into a rolling ball across the deck.

It was during a period of big fights and fighters, of Dempsey and Tunney, the country was boxing conscious. As soon as Segar drew the first punch he realized he had the making of a great fighter and the strip's name became "Thimble Theater - Starring Popeye."

Around 1932 it became just "Popeye." Popeye was the forerunner of "Superman." The scrappy sailor dove out of planes and landed on his lantern jaw. Bullets never stopped him, he knocked out gorillas and fought anyone anywhere.

Many words and phrases like, "I yam what I am," "Jeep," "fisk fights," "Sweets Patootie," and his "adoptik infink, swee' pea," worked into the vocabularies of his readers.

Fan mail was immediate. Some complained about the character "Alice the Goon," mostly mothers writing in to say their children were having nightmares.

His influence on spinach consumption was legendary.

Segar took his readers along the waterfront where they met characters like "Poop Deck Pappy," Popeye's father, his nephews, "Popeye, Peepeye and Poopeye, Mr. Geezil," and the "Sea Hag."

And of course there was the hamburger eating con-man J. Wellington Wimpy who would say, "I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today," and who gave England its generic name for hamburger, the wimpy.

A famous episode took place in the Cafe de Roughouse when Popeye won a $20,000 bet that Wimpy couldn't hold a hamburger in his hand for 10 minutes without eating it. The drooling Wimpy held it for nine minutes and 50 seconds.

Segar was 44 years old when he died in 1938, but his strip was already a big success, appearing in hundreds of newspapers and with a popular radio version.

Bud Sagendorf, who draws Popeye today, was still a high school student when he met Segar in 1931.

Except for a period when the strip was drawn by Bill Zaboly, Sagendorf has been at the drawing board each day turning out Popeye.

Although Popeye's strength and fists have overcome man, beast and the elements through the years he will be no match for the video-violence code in his new series.

"It's not going to be that way anymore," said Art Scott, an executive with Hanna-Barbera, "the characters will look and sound the same as they did in 454 previous cartoons, but Popeye will not be punching anymore."

He promised viewers that the runty puncher-outer is not being fitted into the corporate image and that his new spinach eating energy will be directed against non-moving objects such as a huge boulder, a truck, a house and in one incident, a moving mosquito.

Bluto, his ancient rival for the hand of slinky Olive Oyl, whose virtue Popeye always defended, will still be around with his dirty tricks, but Popeye is going to rise above it all.

"The sting and zip will not be taken out of Popeye," Scott said. "The SPLATS, WHAMS, POWS AND WHOMPS' will disappear. Bluto will still be the pest when he does things like change a street sign, anything to divert Popeye."

In '32, Max Fleisher was the first to put the strip in animated form.

The voice of Popeye for the past 44 years has been Jack Mercer.

Mercer, a quiet, easy-going New Yorker, would be more at home with Wimpy, a voice he also provided in the old TV and movie cartoons.

Although he's lived his double life for most of his years, Mercer was not the original voice. That belonged to a country singer named, "Red Pepper Sam" Costello, who dropped his contract in '33.

It was in the early '30's, when Mercer was employed by Fleisher, that he first developed Popeye's voice. "I began mimicking Popeye when I was inking in the panels just to clown around and amuse the other artists," Mercer recalled.

"When Costello quit, the producers asked me to go to work for them and I've been doing it ever since."

It has been 16 years since Mercer has done a TV Popeye but during the layoff he has been doing the voice for TV commercials and records.

"The difficulty is cutting down the violence," Mercer said. "Popeye never did hurt anyone unless it was absolutely necessary. But the silly part of it is, that violent shows are still being seen on TV all over the country and nobody objects. It doesn't make sense to impose different rules on the new shows."

In a move to somehow curb the "violence of noise" that might wake a sleeping parent on a Saturday morning Mercer said he has redone the opening song. "I've re-recorded 'I'm Popeye the Sailor Man' and instead of using the old boat whistle to punctuate 'Toot-toot' I do the whistle myself."

On June 25, a six-foot, 900 lb. bronze statue of Popeye, whose more than $20 million in earnings from TV makes him the richest and most famous sailor in the world, will be unveiled in Chester, Ill.