Billy Mays, the burly, bearded television pitchman whose boisterous hawking of products such as Orange Glo and OxiClean made him a pop-culture icon, has died. He was 50.
Tampa police said Mays was found unresponsive by his wife Sunday morning. A fire rescue crew pronounced him dead at 7:45 a.m. It was not immediately clear how he died. He said he was hit on the head when an airplane he was on made a rough landing Saturday, and Mays’ wife told investigators the TV personality didn’t feel well before he went to bed that night.
There were no signs of a break-in at the home, and investigators do not suspect foul play, said Lt. Brian Dugan of the Tampa Police Department, who wouldn’t answer any more questions about how Mays’ body was found because of the ongoing investigation. The coroner’s office expects to have an autopsy done by Monday afternoon.
Mays’ wife, Deborah Mays, told investigators that her husband had complained he didn’t feel well before he went to bed some time after 10 p.m. Saturday night, Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said.
“Although Billy lived a public life, we don’t anticipate making any public statements over the next couple of days,” Deborah Mays said in a statement Sunday. “Our family asks that you respect our privacy during these difficult times.”
U.S. Airways confirmed Sunday that Mays was among the passengers on a flight that made a rough landing on Saturday afternoon at Tampa International Airport, leaving debris on the runway after apparently blowing its front tires.
Tampa Bay’s Fox television affiliate interviewed Mays after the incident.
“All of a sudden as we hit you know it was just the hardest hit, all the things from the ceiling started dropping,” MyFox Tampa Bay quoted him as saying. “It hit me on the head, but I got a hard head.”
McElroy said linking Mays’ death to the rough landing Saturday afternoon would “purely be speculation.” She said Mays’ family members didn’t report any health issues with the pitchman, but they said he was due to have hip replacement surgery in the coming weeks.
Born William Mays in McKees Rocks, Pa., on July 20, 1958, Mays developed his style demonstrating knives, mops and other “as seen on TV” gadgets on Atlantic City’s boardwalk. For years he worked as a hired gun on the state fair and home show circuits, attracting crowds with his booming voice and genial manner.
After meeting Orange Glo International founder Max Appel at a home show in Pittsburgh in the mid-1990s, Mays was recruited to demonstrate the environmentally friendly line of cleaning products on the St. Petersburg-based Home Shopping Network.
Commercials and informercials followed, anchored by the high-energy Mays showing how it’s done while tossing out kitschy phrases like, “Long live your laundry!”
Recently he’s been seen on commercials for a wide variety of products and is featured on the reality TV show “Pitchmen” on the Discovery Channel, which follows Mays and Anthony Sullivan in their marketing jobs. He’s also been seen in ESPN ads.
His ubiquitousness and thumbs-up, in-your-face pitches won Mays plenty of fans. People line up at his personal appearances for autographed color glossies, and strangers stop him in airports to chat about the products.
“I enjoy what I do,” Mays told The Associated Press in a 2002 interview. “I think it shows.”
Mays liked to tell the story of giving bottles of OxiClean to the 300 guests at his wedding, and doing his ad spiel (“powered by the air we breathe!”) on the dance floor at the reception. Visitors to his house typically got bottles of cleaner and housekeeping tips.
As part of “Pitchmen,” Mays and Sullivan showed viewers new gadgets such as the Impact Gel shoe insert; the Tool Band-it, a magnetized armband that holds tools; and the Soft Buns portable seat cushion.
“One of the things that we hope to do with `Pitchmen’ is to give people an appreciation of what we do,” Mays told The Tampa Tribune in an interview in April. “I don’t take on a product unless I believe in it. I use everything that I sell.”
Discovery Channel spokeswoman Elizabeth Hillman released a statement Sunday extending sympathy to the Mays family.
“Everyone that knows him was aware of his larger-than-life personality, generosity and warmth,” Hillman’s statement said. “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.”
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