Billy Mays dies at 50; boisterous TV pitchman
As elegies go, it wasn’t W.H. Auden. But one had to imagine that Billy Mays, the booming TV infomercial pitchman, would have appreciated the YouTube comment that, despite its misspellings, merged a farewell with yet another testimonial for one of his many miracle products:
“My Best Friend’s house caught on fire the cloths were brown from the smoke, we soaked them overnight in [OxiClean] and they came out smelling fresh and clean,” wrote the poster, jamiedeanb, one of dozens who offered their condolences on the site. “Rest In Peace MR. Mayes.”
Mays, 50, the emphatic and well-known hawker of the OxiClean stain remover, the Zorbeez super chamois, a sticky substance called Mighty Putty and many other items offered for an amazing low price, was found unresponsive in his Tampa, Fla., home Sunday morning. He was declared dead by a fire rescue crew at 7:45 a.m., according to Sgt. Christopher Ugles, a spokesman for the Tampa Police Department.
The cause of his death was unknown, but Mays had told his wife, Deborah, that he didn’t feel well after a U.S. Airways flight he was on made a bumpy landing Saturday afternoon. In an interview with a local TV station, Mays said he was struck on the head by a falling object during the landing.
“All of a sudden as we hit, you know it was just the hardest hit, all the things from the ceiling started dropping,” the Associated Press said Mays told MyFox Tampa Bay. “It hit me on the head, but I got a hard head.”
The airline confirmed that Mays was on the flight. The results of an autopsy are expected today or Tuesday, Ugles said.
Mays’ surprising death came as he was enjoying an unlikely degree of fame and fortune as a practitioner of “direct-response advertising,” the infomercial-style spots that drive a $150-billion industry. He and his sometimes-collaborator, Anthony Sullivan, have racked up more than $1 billion in combined sales, according to Fortune magazine. In April, the Discovery Channel began airing “Pitchmen,” a reality TV show based on their exploits.
“I hate to say it, but the king is dead,” Sullivan said in a statement Sunday. " . . . I’ll always remember his booming voice -- him saying, ‘Hi, Billy Mays here!’ He was the best friend a man could wish for. He was much more than people knew.”
Mays was not known so much as an innovator; TV infomercials have been around for decades, and other small-screen pitchmen, like Ron “Ronco” Popeil, have become quasi-household names. But in a broader advertising culture that regularly deploys irony and subtlety to ward off the whiff of cheesiness, Mays proved the enduring power of the hard sell. It was a universe where cleanup was always a breeze, where it was important to call right now, and where $20 values seemed to always be included free.
It was an old-fashioned style that prompted wags on the Internet to poke good-natured fun at Mays with countless video parodies that served to exponentially increase his stature. They dubbed his ads with absurdist dialogue, created gangster-rap remixes of his voice and dressed themselves up to emulate his impossibly dark hair and beard -- a signature style that made him resemble a bear that had fallen into a vat of Just For Men.
Eventually, however, Mays cheekily exploited the phenomenon, starring in his own clever, self-parodying spots -- one for a snowboard made by the hip DC Shoes brand and another for ESPN360.com.
“The secret is in the Internet connection!” Mays shouts in the ad for the ESPN website, with the same earnest delivery he’d used to explain the technology of the Samurai Shark knife sharpener and the Bay City Slider Station burger machine.
The pitchman-as-entertainer role is one with deep roots in American history and culture. In the 19th century, patent-medicine men often used Wild West shows, bands and pie-eating contests to draw attention to their nostrums. Often, of course, their pitch was more effective than their product.
But Mays -- who marketed but never invented his products -- always insisted that they were good ones, and he credited that quality control for his enduring popularity.
“You don’t stay in this business as long as I have unless the products work,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in April. “When I say ‘Billy Mays here for Mighty Putty,’ all I have is my name and the trust of the audience. I would never let the consumer down.”
William D. “Billy” Mays was born in McKees Rocks, Pa., near Pittsburgh, on July 20, 1958. After graduating from high school, he played some semiprofessional football but found his calling just before his 24th birthday, when he followed a Ginsu knife salesman to the Atlantic City boardwalk. There, he told the Post-Gazette, he learned from older pitchmen how to entrance a crowd and make a sale.
Later he met the owner of a cleaner called Orange Glo, who hired him to sell it on the Home Shopping Network in 1996. From then until his death, Mays talked up an ever-changing array of slicers, dicers, cleaners and cookers. The only constant was his bearded visage, booming voice and trademark blue shirt. With his Florida-based company, Mays Promotions Inc., he entered into numerous marketing agreements with the makers of the world’s next big gadgets. He appeared on Jay Leno’s and Conan O’Brien’s talk shows and took to driving a Bentley. In a sign of the times, Mays had also begun touting a discount health-insurance plan called iCan.
It wasn’t always easy being king. Recently, Mays’ primacy as pitchman was challenged by Offer “Vince” Shlomi, a lupine, smart-alecky spokesman for the ShamWow, a rival chamois to Mays’ Zorbeez product. Shlomi’s style was more knowing and sarcastic than Mays’, prompting Slate.com advertising reviewer Seth Stevenson to ponder whether he was a pitchman better suited to the times.
In February, Mays challenged Shlomi, perhaps half-jokingly, to a “pitch-off” over the two products. A month later, Popular Mechanics magazine tested them and found the ShamWow to be more effective “by a mile.”
In addition to his wife, Mays is survived by a toddler daughter and a son, Billy Mays Jr., who is in his 20s. His mother lives in the Pittsburgh area, a Discovery Channel spokesperson said.
The taped season finale of “Pitchmen” is scheduled to run Wednesday night.