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TV pitchman Billy Mays found dead at Fla. home

Monday, June 29, 2009

(Photo)
Pitchman Billy Mays on the set March 31 for an infomercial for Arm & Hammer Baking Soda in Gulfport, Fla. Mays has died at age 50.
(SCOTT KEELER ~ St. Petersburg Times)
TAMPA, Fla. -- Billy Mays, the burly, bearded television pitchman whose boisterous hawking of products such as Orange Glo and OxiClean made him a pop-culture icon, has died. He was 50.

Tampa police said Mays' wife found him unresponsive Sunday morning. A fire rescue crew pronounced him dead at 7:45 a.m. It was not immediately clear how he died. He said he was hit on the head when an airplane he was on made a rough landing Saturday, and his wife, Deborah Mays, told investigators he didn't feel well before he went to bed about 10 p.m. that night.

There were no signs of a break-in at the home, and investigators do not suspect foul play, said Lt. Brian Dugan of the Tampa Police Department, who wouldn't answer questions about how Mays' body was found because of the ongoing investigation.

The coroner's office expects to have an autopsy done by this afternoon.

U.S. Airways confirmed that Mays was among the passengers on a flight that made a rough landing on Saturday afternoon at Tampa International Airport, after apparently blowing its front tires.

Tampa Bay's Fox television affiliate interviewed Mays afterward.

"All of a sudden as we hit you know it was just the hardest hit, all the things from the ceiling started dropping," MyFox Tampa Bay quoted him as saying. "It hit me on the head, but I got a hard head."

Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said linking Mays' death to the landing would "purely be speculation." She said Mays' family members didn't report any health issues with the pitchman, but said he was due to have hip replacement surgery in the coming weeks.

Born William Mays in McKees Rocks, Pa., on July 20, 1958, Mays developed his style demonstrating knives, mops and other "As Seen on TV" gadgets on Atlantic City's boardwalk.

For years he worked as a hired gun on the state fair and home show circuits, attracting crowds with his booming voice and genial manner.

AJ Khubani, founder and CEO of "As Seen on TV," said he first met Mays in the early 1990s when Mays was still pitching one of his early products, the Shammy absorbent cloth, at a trade fair. He said he most recently worked with Mays on the reality TV show "Pitchmen" on the Discovery Channel, which follows Mays and Anthony Sullivan in their marketing jobs.

"His innovative role and impact on the growth and wide acceptance of direct response television cannot be overestimated or easily replaced; he was truly one of a kind," Khubani said of Mays in a statement.

After meeting Orange Glo International founder Max Appel at a home show in Pittsburgh in the mid-1990s, Mays was recruited to demonstrate the environmentally friendly line of cleaning products on the St. Petersburg-based Home Shopping Network.

Commercials and informercials followed, anchored by the high-energy Mays showing how it's done while tossing out kitschy phrases like, "Long live your laundry!"

Sarah Ellerstein worked closely with Mays when she was a buyer for the Home Shopping Network in the 1990s and he was pitching Orange Glo products.

"Billy was such a sweet guy, very lovable, very nice, always smiling, just a great, great guy," she said, adding that Mays met his future wife at the network. "Everybody thinks because he's loud and boisterous on the air that that's the way he is, but I always found him to be a quiet, down-to-earth person."

His ubiquitousness and thumbs-up, in-your-face pitches won Mays plenty of fans for his commercials on a wide variety of products. People lined up at his personal appearances for autographed color glossies, and strangers stopped him in airports to chat about the products.

"I enjoy what I do," Mays said in a 2002 interview. "I think it shows."

Mays liked to tell the story of giving bottles of OxiClean to the 300 guests at his wedding, and doing his ad spiel ("powered by the air we breathe!") on the dance floor at the reception. Visitors to his house typically got bottles of cleaner and housekeeping tips.

As part of "Pitchmen," Mays and Sullivan showed viewers new gadgets such as the Impact Gel shoe insert; the Tool Band-it, a magnetized armband that holds tools; 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," Mays told The Tampa Tribune in an April interview. "I don't take on a product unless I believe in it. I use everything that I sell."

His former wife, Dolores "Dee Dee" Mays, of McKees Rocks, Pa., recalled that the first product he sold was the Wash-matik, a device for pumping water from a bucket to wash cars.

"I knew him since he was 15, and I always knew he had it in him," she said of Mays' success. "He'll live on forever because he always had the biggest heart in the world. He loved his friends and family and would do anything for them. He was a generous soul and a great father."

Besides his wife, Mays is survived by a 3-year-old daughter and a stepson in his 20s, police said.


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