These last couple of weeks have been rough ones for the entertainment industry. A number of icons have passed away in quick succession: Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson. The “Rule of Three” was proved true with the deaths of these well-known celebrity figures, each of whom had contributed to the evolving television landscape in specific and impactful ways. Late-night television, sexy detectives and MTV would not have been the same without them. But as the tumultuous week came to an end (In what direction was a show like “Entertainment Tonight” supposed to point its cameras?), there came news that a fourth Idiot Box icon had shuffled off this mortal coil. Noted TV pitchman Billy Mays was dead at age 50 from a heart attack.
William Darrell Mays was born July 20, 1958, in McKees Rocks, Pa. A born salesman, Mays started off his post-college-dropout career hustling gewgaws like the WashMatik portable car cleaning system on Atlantic City’s famed Boardwalk. After learning the tricks of the “yell and sell” trade, Mays traveled the country for a number of years living the life of an itinerant salesman pitching various slicers, dicers, cleaning products and 10-in-one tool sets at car shows, state fairs and the like. Eventually, the man with the booming voice was hired by the Home Shopping Network to work his magic. There, the burly, bearded pitchman made a national name for himself. Before long, Billy Mays became synonymous with late-night infomercials for such “As Seen on TV” products as OxiClean, Orange Glo and Mighty Putty.
Mays owned (and claimed to be an avid user of) most of the products he pitched. He often related the story of handing out bottles of OxiClean to guests at his wedding and once told a reporter from Portfolio magazine that “The best things in life are free and $19.95.” Although his rise to commercial fame was quick, his pop cultural presence didn’t quite match up to that of the godfather of all TV pitchmen, Ron Popeil. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, Mr. Popeil’s Ronco produced such unforgettable products at the Popeil Pocket Fisherman, the Chop-O-Matic and the Inside-the-Shell Egg Scrambler. Earlier this year, however, Mays threatened to eclipse his predecessor by starring in the Discovery Channel docu-reality show “Pitchmen,” featuring fellow TV pitcher Anthony “Sully” Sullivan.
In spite of Mays’ untimely death, Discovery Channel still plans to air the final episode of “Pitchmen” starting this week. A statement on the network’s website, credited to Discovery Channel President and General Manager John Ford, called Mays a “loyal and compassionate friend” and noted that Mays’ “larger-than-life personality, infectious spirit, generosity and warmth helped many people fulfill their dreams.” Like owning an Awesome Auger, for example.