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Infomercial King Had the Perfect Pitch

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 29, 2009

Billy Mays, the bearded, boisterous pitchman who, as the undisputed king of TV yell and sell, became an unlikely pop culture icon, died June 28 at his Tampa home at age 50. Tampa police told the Associated Press that his wife discovered him unresponsive early in the morning. A fire rescue crew pronounced him dead at 7:45 a.m.

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The man many TV viewers knew as "the OxiClean guy" was among the passengers on a US Airways flight that made a rough landing the previous afternoon at Tampa International Airport. Mr. Mays told Tampa's Fox TV affiliate that something fell from the ceiling and hit him on the head, "but I got a hard head." A police spokeswoman said linking his death to the rough landing would "purely be speculation."

As often as 400 times a week, his "Hi! Billy Mays here!" signaled yet another paean to Mighty Putty, Simoniz Fix It scratch remover, the Big City Slider Station, the Handy Switch, the Awesome Auger and numerous other "As Seen on TV" products. In a 2008 profile of Mr. Mays, The Washington Post noted that top pitchmen get about $20,000 upfront for each commercial they tape, although Mr. Mays made even more money from a commission on gross revenue. He refused to be specific about his annual income, although Forbes magazine said his efforts accounted for more than $1 billion in combined sales for the products he pitched.

Recently, he was featured on the Discovery Channel reality show "Pitchmen," which follows Mr. Mays and Anthony Sullivan, his business partner and producer, as they entice viewers with such new gadgets as the Impact Gel shoe insert, the Tool Band-It and the Soft Buns portable seat cushion.

"One of the things that we hope to do with 'Pitchmen' is to give people an appreciation of what we do," he told the Tampa Tribune this year. "I don't take on a product unless I believe in it. I use everything that I sell."

He was born William D. Mays Jr. in McKees Rocks, Pa., and grew up in Pittsburgh, where he was a high school football player. He dropped out of West Virginia University and worked for his father's hazardous-waste trucking company. In 1983, he ran into a high school friend who was headed to Atlantic City to sell Ginsu knives on the boardwalk, at the time a pitchman's mecca. Mr. Mays went along for the ride and ended up becoming a pitchman himself.

He worked for a company called International Housewares; the first product he pitched was WashMatik, a hose that could pump water from a bucket without being hooked up to a faucet. He told The Post that he wasn't much of a salesman at first. He spent too much time describing the product and not enough time "chilling 'em down" -- that is, getting potential buyers to fork over their money.

After a few years with the WashMatik, he spent five years pitching the Ultimate Chopper at home shows and state fairs across the country. His demonstration involved "ballying," as the pitchman sales banter is known, at full volume for hours on end and then making salsa with the kitchen tool. Along the way, he met Max Appel, an inventor and pitchman who was selling Orange Glo, a wood-polishing liquid. When Appel asked Mr. Mays to pitch his product on the Home Shopping Network, he sold 6,000 units in 11 minutes, at $18 a piece. He was on his way to superstardom.

He reached the pinnacle of pitchman success in 1999, when he did a two-minute commercial for the all-purpose OxiClean, which Appel had created. Appel would later sell his company, which included OxiClean and other products, for $325 million. By then, Mr. Mays had become an infomercial phenom.

His marriage to Dolores "Dee Dee" Mays ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife, Deborah Mays of Tampa.

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