He was speeding down a tiny road in England, his mind focused on the happy details of a coming trip to France, Dubai and China, when the call buzzed through his BlackBerry.
"Have you heard about Billy? The police (called)," the voice said, as Anthony Sullivan shifted the phone. In a flash, his thoughts went to partner Billy Mays, world-famous infomercial barker and Sullivan's cohort on the Discovery Channel series Pitchmen.
Working together from their Tampa home base, the two had built an unlikely hit on a cable channel known for shows about sharks and crab fishermen. Days ago, he had left Mays after a triumphant appearance on Conan O'Brien's Tonight Show, urging his friend to take July off after their most successful year ever.
Sullivan knew his buddy was scheduled for his third hip surgery the very next day, so he feared the worst. A DUI arrest, perhaps? Some fan-related nonsense?
"Billy's dead," said friend and local plastic surgeon Dr. Bill Adams, dropping the bombshell that would rewrite the 40-year-old Englishman's life. Mays, 50, had died in his sleep at his Tampa home the morning of June 28.
For Sullivan, the next few hours would pass in a haze — calling Mays' wife, Deborah; taking calls from local press; sitting in his mother's home in England, crafting a press statement; catching a flight to Florida, breaking down in tears every 15 minutes.
"People knew that with Billy (gone), a piece of me was going to die," said Sullivan, his voice trembling as he recalled that early, awful time. "These feelings of guilt came to me. We had to shoot over 26 commercials for Pitchmen and the workload was intense . . . What if we worked too hard?
"But at the same time, here was a guy who finished up something he started on the streets of Pittsburgh, and made it basically to the top, by the time he was 50," said Sullivan. "It's almost like he stamped it at 50: I'm leaving."
Left hanging, was another question — for the infomercial industry, Mays' family and Sullivan himself.
• • •
It was, as they say in the world of informercials, a "perfect demo."
Taking a good-sized square of carpet, Sullivan drew thick lines on it with a fat, black marker. Then he drenched one area with a spritz of cleaner delivered from a device resembling a yellow and blue iron with a small, rotating brush at the business end.
"Watch the pulsating action," Sullivan thundered in a Clearwater TV studio last Wednesday. He was filming the demonstration portion of a new, 28-minute infomercial for Arm & Hammer's latest product featuring OxiClean detergent, the Arm & Hammer Plus OxiClean Power Stainlifter.
Surrounded by cameras and lights, Sullivan cut a different figure than his long-gone partner, who tended to shout viewers into submission. Sucking the audience in with clever wordplay and his cheeky English patois, he persuades rather than demands.
Leaning back to show a clean spot, Sullivan lets go with the money line: "That permanent marker is gone for good."
This, it seems, is how life goes on after Billy Mays: one pitch at a time.
It was a scene that almost didn't happen. Devastated by Mays' death, Sullivan considered ramping down his production company, declining offers to take on new clients and refusing a new season of Pitchmen.
But days after Mays died, Sullivan organized a historic telephone meeting with more than 30 people who had commercials featuring the legendary pitchman. In the end, the message was clear: Billy would have wanted the show to go on.
Now Sullivan is spearheading the first infomercial in Arm & Hammer history. He's selling a new product based on the OxiClean brand Mays made famous, voicing a commercial originally planned to feature his former partner.
The number of commercials featuring Mays has dipped, from 12 to 15 regularly airing just before his death to five or six currently, according to the Infomercial Monitoring Service. But Sullivan said most TV pitchmen would consider five commercials in regular rotation a career high.
"You pull Billy's commercials off the air, and you're talking about $5 million a week just in advertising, and people start to lose jobs," said Sullivan, well aware that some have criticized the decision to keep airing his spots. "Some agencies were stressing because . . . if they cut Billy's commercials, they've got to fire five people. So, by cutting the head off that, you're not making it any easier for the economy to recover."
• • •
For Sullivan, the question of taking over Mays' former accounts was resolved by asking a simpler question. If he didn't, who would?
"I'd rather have Sully doing this than some stranger, or some hotshot trying to be the next Billy Mays," said the guy who actually is the next Billy Mays, his son Billy Mays III. Now 23, the youngest Mays is building his own tributes to his father — establishing a blog, www.wheresbillymays.com, sending free stickers of his dad's likeness to fans and messaging them regularly through Twitter @youngbillymays.
Mays broke the news of his father's death to many fans on Twitter, sending a message at 10:55 a.m. that day: "My dad didn't wake up this morning. I'm sure you'll all hear about it. It hasn't yet hit me but it's about to."
That evenhanded attitude emerged in young Billy minutes after hearing of his father's death, courtesy of a memory from February, when his dad helped him cope with losing all his possessions in an apartment fire.
"He said, 'What you don't realize when something like this is happening, is that when you get through it, you're at a way better level when it's over,' " Mays said. "And he was right. My dad prepared me to get through his own death, and he didn't even know it."
Now working as a production assistant on Sullivan's shoots, Mays is keeping a low profile while developing plans for a nonprofit foundation. One thing he's not sure of yet: whether he wants to step into his father's shoes on the other side of the camera.
"At the funeral, that whole time I felt a lot of people wanted me to . . . and I kind of felt like I should," said Mays, who wore his father's trademark blue shirt and khaki pants in tribute. "I wouldn't just jump into it, because I wouldn't get any respect. (But) I know it's in my blood."
• • •
Eventually, in most interviews, it comes up. The autopsy question.
The Hillsborough County Medical Examiner released a final autopsy Aug. 7 that said Mays died of heart disease with cocaine use as a contributory cause. The report said tests revealed the presence of substances produced by the body when it breaks down cocaine, leading to the conclusion Mays used the drug in the days before his death.
"I was blindsided totally by that . . . I never saw him use it and I was completely shocked," said Sullivan, who shut down talking to the press after the report was released, even turning down a request from Barbara Walters.
"I wish there had been a second doctor on the ground to question it," he added. "I knew the toxicology report wasn't going to be good, because I knew how much pain medication Billy took, that he was prescribed . . . (But) here was a guy who spent 50 years of his life building up this legacy . . . and then you read this report."
The younger Mays said his stepmother, Deborah, visited the medical examiner's office with a lawyer, opposing the mention of cocaine in the final report.
"It's so speculative, like saying he had a bacon cheeseburger and that contributed to his hypertension," said Mays. The family quickly released a statement saying they were disappointed by the report and that they never saw the elder Mays use nonprescription drugs.
"My dad had a choice — he could work without meds and be in pain and irritable or take the medication and be off his game a bit," said the younger Mays. "If you ask me, what killed him was not taking care of himself."
These days, Sullivan is focusing on finishing the Arm & Hammer infomercial for November and assembling the second season of Pitchmen. Let others grouse about a recession; with TV outlets desperate for advertisers and audiences ready for the cheap thrill that comes from an impulse buy, Sullivan is having the best year in his company's history, with about eight commercials on air generating $70 million in sales.
Already, he has auditioned more than 600 hopeful pitchers and inventors in Las Vegas for Pitchmen's second season. His goal: Make the show a bigger, better tribute to Mays and the industry he loved.
"I think Pitchman really legitimized and put a face, heart and soul on a business that I think was considered heartless," he said. "If we quit, what's that telling everyone else out there?"
Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or [email protected] See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.