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Billy Mays: Behind the scenes with the pitchman

Pitchman Billy Mays fires a jury-rigged bug bazooka  at a windshield while filming an infomercial for a new windshield wiper blade in Safety Harbor.

JIM DAMASKE | Times (2008)

Pitchman Billy Mays fires a jury-rigged bug bazooka at a windshield while filming an infomercial for a new windshield wiper blade in Safety Harbor.

When pitchman Billy Mays appeared on HSN in 1999, the show producer prepared her stage crew on their headsets.

"Get out your earplugs."

On his way to becoming one of the biggest infomercial pitchmen ever, Mr. Mays preferred to call his yelling "merely projecting." But it was more than his religiously rehearsed patter and striking black hair and beard that commanded attention. He liked to say he created a need for affordable products that solved problems, some of which buyers just might not yet know. And he was magnetically attracted to over-the-top demonstrations.

• For OxiClean he poured what appeared to be a witch's brew of petroleum products into a glass bowl full of laundry. Then he dipped in his bare hand to swirl in a laundry elixir that turned the toxic stew white and clean.

"Watch the power of Mother Nature," he proclaimed. "It's the stain terminator!"

When Church & Dwight Co. paid $320 million for OxiClean in 2006, analysts asked for and got assurances Mr. Mays would remain brand spokesman, thrusting an infomercial star into mainstream advertising.

• On his Discovery Channel series The Pitchmen, an inventor cooked up a shock-absorbing gel so demonstrably tough, Mr. Mays could not say no. He learned how to cover his hand with a piece of Impact Gel pad, pound it with a big hammer pain-free, then shatter a brick in the same motion to prove the hammer was real. The gel is sold as shoe insoles. But despite his best efforts, Mr. Mays could not muster the nerve to let an SUV drive over his hand protected only by a sheet of gel. So co-star and business sidekick Anthony Sullivan volunteered his hand for the cameras.

• Last summer Mr. Mays spent a day in a Safety Harbor park firing a jury-rigged bug bazooka that splattered hundreds of live crickets over a car windshield to show off a rugged wiper blade. The film crew was getting nervous about spending so much time shooting an arguably legal firearm in a public park without a permit when a gaggle of elementary school students on a field trip spotted a familiar face.

"Excuse me a second," said Mr. Mays as he wandered over, signed autographs and leaned into his OxiClean spiel.

"Powered by the air you breathe! Activated by the water you drink!"

The kids erupted in applause.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Billy Mays: Behind the scenes with the pitchman 06/29/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 30, 2009 6:32am]
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