Billy Mays, the loud, fast-talking pitchman who epitomized the infomercial spokesman, died Saturday at his home in Tampa. Mays, who would have turned 51 on July 20, was found by his wife. Police do not suspect foul play.
However, Mays was aboard Saturday's U.S. Airways Flight 1241 flying from Philadelphia, which suffered a rough landing when its front tire blew out. He told a Tampa TV station that he was struck in the head during the incident. An autopsy is scheduled for Monday.
Dressed in a trademark blue shirt and khaki pants, the husky, bearded Mays had been among the best-known infomercial hucksters on TV for more than two decades, pitching cleaning products, wonder tools and other "as seen on TV" items that eventually made their way into retail stores.
Mays began his sales career selling portable washing machines on the Atlantic City boardwalk after graduating from high school in 1977, beginning a career that would take him across the country, where he pitched products at state fairs, conventions and home and garden shows.
It was at a Pittsburgh home show in 1993 that Mays would jumpstart his career. There, he met Max Appel, founder of Orange Glo cleaning products. Mays began promoting OxiClean and other Orange Glo products on the Home Shopping Network, and sales took off. Mays continued to hawk OxiClean after the company was sold to consumer products giant Dwight and Church. But his showmanship lent itself to scores of other infomercial products that provided the blue-collar Mays a lavish lifestyle.
"I've done well for myself," Mays told USA TODAY in a recent interview. "The infomercial business has been good to me."
With many of the products he helped bring to market, Mays wasn't just a pitchman, he had a stake in overall sales.
Mays said he had a blueprint to determine what made products infomercial-worthy. "Is it demonstratable? Does it have that wow factor? Is it easy to use? Is it priced right? It's a funny business," Mays said. "I kind of compare it to baseball. I'm always looking for a home run."
Mays' style became so well known that he was used to promote ESPN and ABC's college bowl games, even health insurance. This year, he had teamed up with business partner and fellow pitchman Anthony Sullivan to star in Discovery Channel's Pitchmen reality show, which showed the pair judging fresh products for infomercial sales and how they'd market them.
Sullivan could not be reached for comment Sunday. The pair last appeared together Tuesday to promote Pitchmen on The Tonight Show with Conan 0'Brien. The last episode, scheduled for Wednesday, had been taped and will air at 10 p.m.
"Everyone that knows him was aware of his larger-than-life personality, generosity and warmth," says Discovery Channel spokeswoman Elizabeth Hillman. "Billy was a pioneer in his field and helped many people fulfill their dreams. He will be greatly missed as a loyal and compassionate friend."