In this occasional series of biographies, we take a peek at the people behind the sales pitch of your favorite “As Seen On TV” products. In this episode we take a look at the life of the legendary Billy Mays, the friendly, boisterous, bearded pitchman for products like Oxiclean and Mighty Mendit.
A Natural Born Pitchman
Billy was born July 20, 1958 and was raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. According to his first wife Dolores “Dee Dee” Mays, Billy was a natural. "I knew him since he was 15, and I always knew he had it in him,” she said of his success.
Billy’s wasn’t such a motivated student (he dropped out of college and went to work for his dad’s hazardous waste company), but he had a larger than life personality and boundless enthusiasm. In 1983, Mays ran into a friend who was headed to the Atlantic City boardwalk to demonstrate and sell Ginsu knives and decided to go along for the ride. Upon seeing these salesman/performers in action, Billy realized what his life’s calling should be. He moved to Atlantic City that year and began honing his craft by watching the older guys on the circuit. “That’s the kind of style I have,” he said.
Image: Sharese Ann Frederick from Purchase, N.Y.
The first product he sold was the WashMatik, a device to make washing a car easier with one bucket of water. He spent the next dozen years traveling around the country to fairs and trade shows, hocking a variety of products with his booming voice to an enthusiastic crowd.
Billy had a rivalry with Max Appel, founder of OrangeGlo International, where they often competed for audiences at the same event. But when Max’s microphone broke and Billy offered his, a friendship was born. Soon, Billy began working for Max, appearing on the Home Shopping Network and pitching OxiClean, eventually making his first commercial for them in 2000.
The King is Crowned
Billy’s over-the-top enthusiasm was an immediate hit with retailers and consumers – sales dramatically increased after every appearance. Critics called his style “chummy but urgent” with lots of gestures and a hammy rhyme or two.
Mays became so successful and in-demand that in 1999 he moved to Dundein Florida and started Mays Promotions; for the next 10 years took on clients from Awesome Auger to Zorbeez, always shouting “Hi, Billy Mays here!” at the top of the commercial, and taking off from there.
“He has one speed, 100 miles an hour,” take it or leave it, said friend Anthony Sullivan.
Behind the scenes, Mays was known as a relentless workhorse, often doing dozens of takes and working long hours. He was also a strong believer in the products he pitched – not only would Billy and his family use the products themselves, but he would often carry samples around with him and give them to fans when he ran into them on the street.
“People would ask ‘Does Mighty Putty really work?’ and my dad would just reach in a bag, give them some, and then say "You tell me!" said his son Billy Mays III.
Sudden Death at Peak of His Career
And just as things were really picking up steam – he had a successful reality show called Pitchmen and was about to become the official spokesperson for Taco Bell – tragedy struck.
On the morning of June 28, 2009 he was pronounced dead in his Tampa, Florida home at the age of 50. At first it was thought his untimely demise was due to being hit on the head; a U.S. Airways passenger plane he was traveling on the night before had blown its front tires and made a rough landing, causing the cabin to be filled with flying objects.
However, the autopsy revealed a different story. Mr. Mays was found to have had traces of cocaine residue, a small amount of alcohol, as well as hydrocodone, oxycodone and tramadol – prescribed due to chronic pain from a hip condition –Xanax and Valium. “Mays died from a lethal arrhythmia of the heart caused by hypertensive and arteriosclerotic heart disease,” and the cocaine use contributed to the disease, the coroner concluded.
The Mays family disputed these findings and hired an independent evaluator to re-read the autopsy report. This evaluator determined (without doing an actual autopsy) that while cocaine and the other substances were in his system, they did not contribute to his heart disease. The County was unconvinced and did not alter the official cause of death on the certificate.
Regardless, Mr. Mays was gone and the autopsy revealed a man that was likely under a lot of pressure and anxiety during his relatively short life (his trademark brown beard was also actually grey). While pitching products that often promised consumers a life of ease or more time to relax, inside he was ratcheting up the stress.
Still, he told a reporter in 2002 “I enjoy what I do. I think it shows.”
But Wait… There’s MORE!
Billy Mays lives on. Not just in the hearts and minds of countless fans that have created works of art or dressed up as their hero (many can be found at Billymays.org, a website created by his son) but also on Youtube, where dozens of his classics can be watched 24/7.
Some products like Mighty Mendit and OxiClean continue to use his likeness and his commercials still air across the country and move thousands of units.
Billy, we salute you at BrightReviews for making commercials fun!