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Informercial king Billy Mays dies at 50 at Tampa home

Known to insomniacs across the globe as the energetic pitchman with the ear-shattering voice and suspiciously jet-black beard, infomercial king Billy Mays always insisted that his legendary pipes were "projecting," not yelling, and that his offscreen persona was different than the excitable guy selling OxiClean detergent at 2 a.m.

"I'm soft-spoken, really," he told the St. Petersburg Times in April, while filming a commercial for Arm & Hammer baking soda in a Gulfport home. "That's a different Billy Mays out there, you know? When I'm talking to you, it's one thing … but I can get loud any time."

The voice that sold $1 billion in products was stilled Sunday when Mr. Mays, 50, was found dead in his Tampa condo by his wife, Deborah Mays. He was pronounced dead at 7:45 a.m. in his gated neighborhood near the Westshore Yacht Club. Tampa police said no foul play is suspected in his death, declining to offer a cause until an autopsy is completed this afternoon.

Mr. Mays, who had two hip replacement surgeries last year, told his family he wasn't feeling well Saturday and went to sleep about 10 p.m,, said Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy. He was scheduled to have another hip operation today, but had no other serious health issues, McElroy added.

In April, Mr. Mays acknowledged discomfort from his hip replacement surgeries: "I had a tough year … I had (my hip) replaced twice. I had a staph infection from the first one, so this last year's been trying. … I stand on my legs all day, I'm still feeling (it). … I'm healing right now, so these hard floors just kill ya."

Police would not speculate on whether Mr. Mays' death was connected to trouble he experienced on a US Airways flight into Tampa from Philadelphia on Saturday, when a front tire blew out on the aircraft while landing. Mr. Mays told WTVT-Ch. 13 Saturday that something hit him on the head during the landing.

"Although Billy lived a public life, we don't anticipate making any public statement over the next couple of days," Deborah Mays said in a statement.

Mr. Mays' son, Billy Mays III, said Sunday on his Twitter account that his "dad didn't wake up this morning. … It hasn't yet hit me but it's about to." Later, the younger Mays, who wrote that he lives in Clearwater, posted an update: "I'm thankful I got to talk to my dad last night. I miss him immensely already. But I feel him with me."

Tampa radio personality Todd "MJ" Schnitt talked to Mr. Mays about 10 p.m. Saturday, calling the host after hearing of the airplane incident. "He sounded groggy … but he was coming off a (commercial) shoot for OxiClean in Philadelphia," said Schnitt, who announced Mr. Mays death on WFLA-AM (970) at 11 a.m. Sunday and plans to feature Mr. Mays' son on his morning show for WFLZ-FM (93.3) today. "He said he was tired and he was going to sleep."

Born William D. Mays in Mc­Kees Rocks, Pa., on July 20, 1958, he played football at West Virginia University and helped with his father's waste-hauling business. A trip with a friend to Atlantic City, N.J., in 1983 led him to try selling products on the boardwalk, learning how to work a crowd from the old school barkers who filled that walkway.

"I was selling this thing called the WashMatik, a washing device that worked out of a bucket … (telling the crowd), 'The power of your arm is pulling the water out of the bucket,'?" Mr. Mays recalled in April, imitating the booming voice he used to draw crowds.

Mr. Mays came to St. Petersburg's Home Shopping Network in 1996 to pitch Orange Glo wood cleaner, recruited by entrepreneur Max Appel. When it came time to create a two-minute commercial for QxiClean detergent in 2000, Mr. Mays joined forces with a young pitchman and producer from England, Anthony Sullivan.

The two created a landmark infomercial that would make Mr. Mays' reputation as a pitchman — and immortalize his shouted opening line "BILLY MAYS HERE, FOR ... !"

Their partnership culminated in an unscripted series on the Discovery Channel this spring featuring their work together, Pitchmen.

"I hate to say it, but the king is dead," Sullivan said on Sunday, breaking into tears over the telephone line from London.

"He was going into hip surgery, and he was a little nervous about it," said Sullivan, who last saw Mr. Mays on Tuesday when the two appeared together on The Tonight Show.

Sullivan said he hoped to persuade the Discovery Channel to re-edit the final episode of Pitchmen, set to air at 10 p.m. Wednesday, into a tribute to Mr. Mays.

Mr. Mays' brand of excitable selling became the cornerstone of a Tampa Bay area infomercial empire, used to pitch everything from health insurance to ESPN 360. Critics groused that his shouting style made some viewers change the channel, while others complained some products didn't work as advertised.

But when the parent company for 150-year-old Arm & Hammer bought Appel's company for $325 million in 2006, it asked Mr. Mays to pitch their baking soda, and his legend was cemented.

"He created a character, just like Sylvester Stallone in Rambo … and people remember characters," A.J. Khubani, CEO of the TeleBrands infomercial company, said in April.

Times staff writers Drew Harwell and Richard Danielson contributed to this report.

But Wait ... There's More

The greatest hits of Billy Mays (some here first featured in the St. Petersburg Times on April 12):

OxiClean detergent
The pitch: "Powered by the air you breathe, activated by the water you and I drink."

Kaboom! household cleaner
The pitch: "Kaboom! and the soap scum is gone."

Orange Glo wood cleaner
The pitch: "For fingerprints, dust, grime, they leave an incredible shine and a fresh orange scent."

Were you on the plane? Were you a passenger on the U.S. Airways flight from Philadelphia to Tampa on Saturday that blew out a tire on landing? If you were on Flight 1241, we'd like to talk to you. Please contact reporter Rebecca Catalanello, (813) 226-3383 or rcatalanello@sptimes.com.

Informercial king Billy Mays dies at 50 at Tampa home 06/28/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 29, 2009 1:36pm]

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