Legendary pitchman Billy Mays' death today leaves fans, friends stunned
As news spread of the death of infomercial king Billy Mays, found dead in his Tampa area home Sunday morning, longtime business partner Anthony "Sully" Sullivan was stuck in London, fielding an avalanche of phone calls and struggling to hold himself together.
Mays, 50, was pronounced dead at 7:45 a.m. at a Bowen Daniel Drive condo, discovered by his wife, Deborah Mays. Though Mays had been a passenger on a US Airways flight that had a tire blow out during landing on Saturday, Sullivan said he doubted the incident had anything to do with his friend's death.
"He was going into hip surgery, and he was a little nervous about it," said Sullivan, who last saw Mays on Tuesday when the two appeared together on The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien. "We were going to take the whole of July off . . . he was going to have his hip surgery and we were going to just relax.
During a press conference with police at 1 p.m. Sunday, a spokeswoman confirmed that Mays was due to have hip replacement surgery Monday. A reporter at the press conference said Mays told reporters on Saturday that a piece of luggage hit him in the head during the flight incident.
"I hate to say it, but the king is dead," said Sullivan, his voice breaking into tears. "I mean that from the bottom of my heart. I’ll always remember his booming voice – him saying 'Billy Mays here.' He was the best friend a man could wish for – he was much more than people knew."
Mays became an internationally known celebrity thanks to his energetic infomercials for products such as OxiClean detergent and Kaboom household cleaner. Always clad in his trademark, sky blue shirt and khaki pants, Mays drew audiences with a booming voice, expansive gestures and his well-known opening: "BILLY MAYS HERE."
Heralded as one of the most successful infomercial hosts in history -- he proudly claimed $1 billion in sales over his career -- Mays reached a new audience in April when the Discovery Channel presented a TV series based on his work with Sullivan, dubbed Pitchmen.
Cool Billy Mays Links:
*Hear audio from one of Mays greatest pitches and see photos from a Gulfport filming session for Arm & Hammer baking soda by clicking here; photo at left from that session.
*See my interview with Mays, featuring outtakes from some of his best-known infomercials, by clicking here.
*One of Mays' last infomercials was for the Jupiter Jack cellphone broadcast system. Check out that video on the product's Web site, by clicking here.
*Video from the Associated Press of Mays can be found by clicking here.
*And you can sign our guestbook on Mays' legacy by clicking here.
Pitchmen's last episode of the season is scheduled for Wednesday and Sullivan hopes to talk Discovery into reworking it as a tribute to his departed partner. "We were close as anyone could get over the last six months . . . I still can't even believe this," he said. everyone in Tampa is just devastated."
Mays, who had two hip replacement surgeries last year, talked about dealing with continuing discomfort during a commercial shoot in Gulfport in April. Even the consummate pitchman, he also used the opportunity to tout the product featured in the first episode of the TV series, Impact Gel.
"I had a tough year," he said. "I had (my hip) replaced twice. I had a staph infection from the first one, so this last year’s been trying. All my shoes have the Impact Gel in ‘em and it’s given me more stamina . . . I stand on my legs all day, I’m still feeling . . . I’m healing right now, so these hard floors just kill ya. So it’s been a big lifesaver for me."
Mays' son, Billy Mays III, noted his father's death on Twitter Sunday morning, saying: "On my way to the house. He's gone. I'm gonna be strong for him. Thank you for all the thoughts and prayers everyone."
The Discovery Channel also released a statement Sunday morning, saying: "Everyone that knows him was aware of his larger-than-life personality, generosity and warmth. Billy was a pioneer in his field and helped many people fulfill their dreams. He will be greatly missed as a loyal and compassionate friend."
Tampa police have announced a press conference at 1 p.m. No information yet on funeral plans.
Photos by Times photographer Scott Keeler
Here's a look at Mays' last talk show performance, on The Tonight Show, and one of his last infomercial pitches, for the Jupiter Jack: