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The Surprising Lives of Famous Pitchmen: Billy Mays


His tireless spiel wasn't naturally fueled.

When Billy Mays, the congenial, impassioned infomercial spokesman, died suddenly in his Florida home at age 50, his pallbearers, including his son, wore blue shirts and khaki pants to pay tribute to the quintessential television pitchman behind Oxi Clean, among other products. Mays was rumored to have been buried in a shirt with an Oxi Clean logo. He wasn't trying to snow audiences into believing he loved the product, it was his life's work.

Born in 1958 in the small town of McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, William Darrell Mays Jr. went to college at West Virginia State where he played football for two years before dropping out. He tried working in waste management like his dad, but in 1983 he picked up and headed to Atlantic City's boardwalk in New Jersey where he sold mops, washers, and other wares. Mays credited the old-school salesmen there for showing him the ropes.

Mays spent the next 12 years as a traveling salesman, later describing his years on the road, hawking at home and auto shows, state fairs, and conventions, as a "tough way to make an easy living." It also left an indelible mark on his home life; Mays said he was an absentee father to his son, Billy Mays III, and he and his wife divorced.

Life changed for Mays when Orange Glo International hired him in the mid-1990s to promote its cleaners on the newly established cable channel, the Home Shopping Network. Mays' television career found near-overnight success. He appeared in commercials selling numerous products, including Oxi Clean, Kaboom, Orange Glo, iCan Health Insurance, Mighty Mend-It, Zoorbeez, and Mighty Putty.

His time on the boardwalk and on the road taught Mays to distinguish himself, which he did with his dark-brown full beard, folksy demeanor, signature thumbs-up to the camera, and booming tone. In PitchMan: A Tribute to Billy Mays -- a documentary that recently aired on the Discovery Channel -- Mays declares that "At the age of 40, I got on television, so my life started after 40." He also remarried and bore a daughter in 2006.

The TV arrangement was a win-win as the Home Shopping Network benefited from Mays popularity -- so much so that other brands, regardless of the industry, scrambled to have Mays provide his stamp of approval. Mays told reporters that his sales pitches have led to "billions" in sales.

His exuberance and the low-budget productions were much parodied on Saturday Night Live and later YouTube (GOOG). But Mays handled the send-ups with aplomb and often joined in the fun. He appeared on several late-night talk shows, a first for any infomercial host. In 2008, ESPN (DIS) had Mays promoting its new online service, ESPN360, where he parodied himself. He had signed on with Taco Bell (YUM) to do a similar series.

In 2009, the Discovery Channel green-lit Mays' own reality show called PitchMen, where he and fellow pitchman Anthony Sullivan, a close friend, judged inventions for new products from upstarts. Mays also used the show as an opportunity to take his son under his wing. "Little Billy," who was then 24 and had grown a beard like his father, served as a production assistant on PitchMen. Like everything else, Mays tirelessly promoted the show, including during his last appearance on The Tonight Show, which was then with Conan O'Brien, and aired five days before his unexpected death, reportedly from a heart attack.

In the media frenzy that followed, it was reported that cocaine had played a role in Mays' death. His regular use of the drug had led to the heart disease that caused his attack. According to the autopsy, Mays was taking moderate levels of painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs. Mays suffered from hip problems and was scheduled for hip-replacement surgery the day after he was found dead by his wife, Deborah.

But, in the end, his life overshadowed his death and PitchMen was so successful that Discovery renewed it for a second season. Mays' son will work on the production and continue what his father had said he hoped to accomplish: "I want to leave a legacy, a good legacy."

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