A legend in his native New Orleans, where his obituary topped the Times-Picayune, the incorrigible Copeland was a high-decibel showboat and inexhaustible entrepreneur who grew up in the city’s projects and scraped together a fortune without finishing high school. At 18, Copeland bought a doughnut shop and funneled its profits into a fried chicken shack: It floundered until he switched to a magical spicy chicken recipe and renamed the restaurant after Gene Hackman’s character in The French Connection, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle. A decade later, Popeyes was the third-largest fried chicken chain in the country. (Copeland later lost control over it when he attempted to buy the Church’s chain and was sunk by his debts.)
His public feuds and his excesses were nearly unrivaled, even in Louisiana. Copeland kept his 50-foot speedboats in a glass showroom along the interstate, when he wasn’t racing them on Lake Pontchartrain. His Christmas light display, which featured a three-story snowman, was so big that his neighbors sued, saying the traffic “held them hostage.” His weddings were infamous: At his third, to Luan Hunter, fireworks spelled out “Al I’ll love you forever Luan,” and the Popeyes helicopter, a.k.a. the chicken chopper, dropped rose petals. When the marriage dissolved into a custody fight 10 years later, the presiding judge ended up in jail, under Operation Wrinkled Robe, after pleading guilty to rigging the custody terms in Copeland’s favor in return for a seafood contract from him. Dude: Louisiana.