Offshore race pioneer was an entertainer

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Al Copeland, the flamboyant restaurateur who put the Popeyes name on his spicy chicken and fast boats, died March 23 in Munich, Germany, where he had been undergoing treatments for salivary gland cancer. He was 64.

Al Copeland, the flamboyant restaurateur who put the Popeyes name on his spicy chicken and fast boats, died March 23 in Munich, Germany, where he had been undergoing treatments for salivary gland cancer. He was 64.

A self-made multimillionaire, Copeland grew up poor in New Orleans. He dropped out of school at 16 to work as a soda jerk, then went into business — a one-man donut shop — two years later. He opened his first fried-chicken fast-food restaurant, Chicken on the Run, in 1971. The new business didn’t take off until Copeland worked up the recipe for a hot, spicy chicken. He sold his fiery, Cajun-style chicken under the name Popeye’s Famous Fried Chicken, for Popeye Doyle, the tough but honest narcotics cop in the movie “The French Connection.”

Copeland began franchising his Popeyes restaurants in 1976, and within 15 years he had 800 outlets around the country and overseas.

Copeland was one of the pioneers of the big, powerful Superboat class in U.S. offshore racing. His 50-foot aluminum Cougar cat, powered by four 700-hp MerCruiser engines, won national championships from 1984-88 and again in 1990, a world championship in 1986 and a British Harmsworth Trophy in 1982, according to writer John Crouse’s “A History of Offshore Powerboat Racing.”

On the offshore tour, the poor boy from New Orleans hobnobbed with Princess Caroline of Monaco, billionaire Donald Trump and actors Chuck Norris and Don Johnson — who he would entertain on his megayacht Cajun Princess, his headquarters and party boat.

“Al loved to entertain,” says Kit Wohl, his publicist. “He entertained everyone. No one was excluded. His generosity extended to everyone on the race site.”

Extravagant to a fault, at one Key West world championship, Copeland set up barbecue stands and bars up and down the docks after the races, put on a fireworks display and feted everyone who came down to see the boats.

At a time when racing’s image suffered from arrests of top racers for drug smuggling, Copeland insisted his team be squeaky clean, Wohl said. “He believed that racing was an important and noble sport. Everyone on his team was expected to conduct himself accordingly on the race site.”

Married four times, Copeland learned the art of starting over the hard way. He acquired Church’s Fried Chicken in 1989 in a heavily-leveraged buyout and two years later declared bankruptcy, losingboth Popeyes and Church’s. He was able to keep a few of the Popeyes restaurants and the company that supplied Popeyes with the spices for its Cajun chicken. Copeland bounced back from that bankruptcy by starting a couple more restaurant chains, among them Copeland’s Famous New Orleans Restaurant and Bar and Copeland’s Cheesecake Bistro.

A resident of Metairie, La., Copeland became famous locally for a fight with his neighbors over a massive Christmas light display that drew thousands of gawkers to his 15-acre estate in a tony neighborhood near Lake Pontchartrain. The fight became so bitter that in 1983 it went to court. The judge ruled against Copeland and told him he had to dismantle his light display.

He was diagnosed with cancer just before Thanksgiving last year. He is survived by five sons, five daughters and 13 grandchildren.