The real Billy Mays behind the pitchman

The last few years had been tough on him physically, but he was always hugely grateful for his success, according to a Fortune writer who profiled him.

By Brian O'Keefe, senior editor

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Billy Mays

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- As soon as I heard the sad and shocking news yesterday that TV pitchman Billy Mays had died at age 50, I thought back to the rainy Friday night in early February that I first met him.

I was working on a story about the infomercial business that was to focus on Mays and his buddy, fellow pitchman, and frequent collaborator Anthony "Sully" Sullivan. The next day the two would be shooting footage for their Discovery Channel reality show "Pitchmen."

Appropriately enough, I heard Mays before I saw him. I hadn't taken more than five steps into my hotel lobby in Burbank when his famous, thundering voice erupted about 30 feet to my left: "HI, BILLY MAYS HERE..." My head swiveled and, sure enough, there he was: Standing in the middle of the hotel bar, an imaginary cleaning product in his hand, his trademark dyed-black beard glistening, with a made-for-TV grin plastered on his face, Mays was entertaining a gaggle of admiring fans and soaking in the adulation of his audience.

In many ways, he was his cartoon-like TV persona. But he was much more than that, too. Not 30 minutes after I first saw Billy in the bar, he had already shown me pictures of his three-year-old daughter, given me much of his life history, and gotten close to tears recounting earlier career setbacks. In the time that I spent with Mays, I found him to be fun-loving, hard-working, big-hearted, amiable, funny, driven, and winningly genuine. He was certainly loud when he was "on" and he had a big ego. But he was also an emotional guy who was capable of quiet self-reflection and real sweetness. I couldn't help but like him immensely.

On Saturday, Mays was on a US Airways flight that blew out its front tires upon landing in Tampa and he told locals reporters that falling stuff, luggage perhaps, had hit him on the head. "But I got a hard head," he said. Typical Billy.

The medical examiner said on Monday that it wasn't head trauma that killed Mays. According to the preliminary results from the autopsy, there was evidence of heart disease.

More than just 'Yell and sell'

As much as the past few years had been great for Billy professionally, they had been tough on him physically. He had a hip replacement last year but suffered complications. A fall during a vacation in Italy led doctors to discover a staph infection and necessitated a five-hour follow-up operation. Billy told me that he had been "playing in pain" for the past three years, getting by on grit and painkillers. He was pushing to get through filming the first season of the reality show before undergoing a third operation on the hip. He was due to have the surgery this week.

His reality show was a big deal for Mays. After a quarter century of working Wal-Mart parking lots, state fairs, and home shows, he loved the validation that his recent fame represented. For a kid from the wrong side of the tracks in McKees Rocks, Penn., outside Pittsburgh, he felt like he had made it pretty good. But he never stopped being grateful, either. Whether on the set after taping a commercial or after interviews with reporters or after a photo shoot, he never seemed to forget to say thank you to everyone involved.

On a Tuesday a couple of weeks after I met Mays in Los Angeles, I went down to Tampa to watch Billy and Sully shoot a new "show" for the bathroom cleaning product Kaboom. For two days, Mays did lines over and over, apologizing to everyone when he flubbed something. "I don't want to be almost perfect," he said more than once. "I want to be perfect."

At one point Billy and I took a break and went for a drive in his Bentley. A leased $200,000 car was one indulgence that he felt he had earned. He worked out of his house as a "one-man band," serving as his own agent and secretary.

For 45 minutes we talked about everything from learning the art of pitching on the Atlantic City boardwalk to how he developed his famous voice. He had built a new house in South Carolina that was big enough to house a studio and had dreams of some day hosting his own radio show right from home. As we pulled back in to the studio parking lot, I asked him what he was hoping people would get out of the Discovery Channel show.

"My hope and wish is that they get a peek into Billy Mays's life and they see that he's not just a guy who shouts," he said. "I'm not just a 'yell and sell.' I want the world to know that I'm a very generous guy. I'm a very humble guy. And I work hard."

He was all that and more. And for that he will be missed. To top of page

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