Surviving Billy Mays: 'Pitchmen' co-star Anthony Sullivan and son Billy Mays III move on, one pitch at a time
Other than a few phone calls to set up the meeting, we hadn't spoken much since the immediate aftermath of Mays' death back in late June, when Sullivan was a bit of basket case. But I'd heard the Englishman was ramping up to do a new infomercial shoot -- the first-ever for longtime cleaning products company Arm & Hammer, and a spot that was initially supposed to have featured Mays.
So I joined Sullivan at a shoot in the Citrus Park Mall two weeks ago, which began a bit of an odyssey in learning how one survives the death of your best friend, who also happens to be a major linchpin in the business where you earn your living.
The result of my two weeks hanging with Sullivan on and off produced a feature for Sunday's Floridian where Sullivan talks about his reaction to Mays' death in new detail and offers his first longform comments on the autopsy report that declared Mays had a heart ailment aggravated by cocaine use.
Eventually, I would watch "Sully" charm mall walkers watching the longtime pitchman's crew as they drafted average folks to try a new carpet cleaning product developed by Arm & Hammer. Before he shared TV time with Mays on the Discovery Channel series Pitchmen, Sullivan might get through a shoot like this without being recognized; but on that day, he was stopping every 10 or 15 minutes to take pictures with fans.
Mays' image is slowly receding from the infomercial/direct response advertising world -- down to about five regularly appearing commercials from about 15 spots right before his death. And his demise seems to be a classic workaholic's calamity; passing away in his sleep a day or so before a scheduled hip surgery after a whirlwind of activity taping commercials in New York and Philadelphia.
Part of the fun in the Citrus Park Mall shoot was getting to know Mays' son, Billy Mays III. An unassuming guy who works as a production assistant on Sullivan's shoots, he was folding paper towels for the filming when I first saw him at the mall -- later he would join the other production assistants in trying to convince passing women to try the product on camera.
Through the day, both Sullivan and the younger Mays shared stories about their last days with the sales icon, heading to Las Vegas for a huge tribute at an industry convention and feeling as if the elder Mays had somehow wrapped up many things in his life, as if unconsciously aware of what was coming.
Now Young Billy Mays is trying to keep his father's legacy alive through a busy Twitter page, an active blog (where he discusses why he found a recent South Park episode featuring his dad a tribute rather than a desecration) and a campaign to send fans stickers of his father's likeness for free. (You can see the South Park episode by clicking here, but be warned, there are graphic images and language.)
"I realized that everyone around me was kinda falling apart, like my family members and stuff," said the younger Mays about time right after his father's death. "(They just felt) like 'this is the biggest tragedy of all time, and I don’t think we’ll ever be okay.' And I knew that I had to be the voice that says, you know, people go when they’re supposed to go . . . You know, I felt like there’s a bigger plan. Even if there isn’t, we have to act like there is, in a way. Like, what would my dad say if he was . . . if everyone that he knew was suddenly just depressed and didn’t want to go on with life? He’d say, you know, wake up and get going ‘cause I’m not here anymore. Now you have to carry it on. So I realized that like 10 minutes in."
I shot the photos from the Citrus Park Mall filming, but photojournalist Carrie Pratt also captured some really cool video while hanging at a studio shoot for the infomercial in Clearwater. Weaving together a short interview with Sullivan -- who occasionally tried directing the filming as if it was just another commercial spot -- and words from Mays with footage of the filming, she created a great companion to my story.