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Death of a pitchman: Billy Mays remembered

BY CAROLYN KLARECKI
Daily Arts Writer
Published June 29, 2009

It’s been one hell of a week for Hollywood. Death comes in threes, as the adage goes, but it didn’t stop there. First it was Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett after him, next Michael Jackson and now pitchman and infomercial icon, Billy Mays. Mays was found dead in his home on the morning of June 28, 2009. The cause of death is thought to be hypertensive heart disease.

At first, comparing the death of Billy Mays with that of McMahon, Fawcett and Jackson may seem like an injustice to the legendary TV personality, actress, and musician. After all, McMahon worked alongside Dick Clark and Johnny Carson, Fawcett was the sex symbol of the 1970s and Jackson revolutionized pop music. Certainly Mays didn’t have the talent to compete with that.

But then again, it takes a very special man to turn a simple product like OxiClean or Orange Glo into a national sensation, and Mays not only turned these two cleaners into household must-haves, but masterfully represented dozens of other products and services. This big-bearded, booming-voiced man found legitimacy in everything from Mighty Putty to the Big City Slider Station and — perhaps even more surprisingly — found success in them too. And who’s to say that’s not a talent?

Mays had an irrefutable gift, even if that gift was a knack for getting people to buy the most bizarre products imaginable, and his flair should be remembered. It’s hard to say if Mays’s fame was due to the success of his products or if the success of his products were a result of his fame. Which came first, the pitchman or the product? Most likely, it was a little of both.

Though Mays started out as salesman on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, his enthusiasm for the products he endorsed was infectious and he quickly became an unlikely celebrity. After a successful stint on the Home Shopping Network, Mays became the most sought after salesman in the infomercial industry. His catch-phrases and easily recognizable appearance gave him a sort of cult-following.

He was a television and internet sensation. The parodies of his infomercials probably get more views than the originals. I’ll be the first to admit I’m a fan of Billy Mays and spent more than an acceptable amount of time watching his bloopers on YouTube. His fame instigated and propelled the cultural fascination with infomercials which also gave rise to his Discovery show “Pitchmen.”

Billy Mays was a true celebrity. He greeted adoring fans, made appearances on talk shows and was one of the mostly widely recognized salesman of our time. Naturally, his celebrity status wasn’t all positive. His ego and rivalry with Vince Shlomi didn’t bring out the best in him, but as it never reached the level of Lindsay Lohan versus Hillary Duff (remember that?), it only made him more fascinating.

To some, Billy Mays was the infomercial industry. It’s hard to imagine the fate of television sales without him. The recent popularity of ShamWow and The Snuggie, products not endorsed by Mays, leads me to believe the industry will live on, but I will always credit Billy Mays with turning a somewhat annoying commercial business into a entertaining trend and onward to a personal empire.

Chances are Billy Mays won’t be as remembered as Michael Jackson, nor should he necessarily be. His contributions to pop culture weren’t as great, but the man embodied the American ideal. He was earnest, hard-working, and honest. University alum and notable playwright Arthur Miller wrote in his appropriately titled play “Death of a Salesman,” “A star like that, magnificent, can never really fade away.”


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