Inside Story: How Billy Mays Became a Star

Inside Story: How Billy Mays Became a Star
Billy Mays
Jeffrey Ufberg/WireImage

06/30/2009 01:35PM

If you didn't know his name, you probably knew his face – or at least his booming voice. But long before his rise to infomercial greatness, Billy Mays – the ubiquitous TV pitchman who died suddenly over the weekend – was just a guy hawking goods on the Atlantic City boardwalk, hoping not for fame but for somebody to buy his cheap gadgets.

In an interview with PEOPLE in March, a spirited Mays, who grew up outside Pittsburgh and played semi-pro football before he tried his luck as a pitchman at the New Jersey seaside resort, recalled his early working days.

"People are walking by half drunk, broke from losing their money in the casino, and you're trying to sell them something they don't want," Mays, 50, said with a laugh. "It was the best training ground in the world."

A New Voice

Success came slowly. "I was very monotone and nasally back then," he said. But with lots of practice, and help from the older pitchmen on the boardwalk, he refined his skill. "I still have that style that I developed over the years."

In 1994, Mays met Anthony Sullivan (with whom he'd later partner on the Discovery Channel series Pitchmen), and the two worked at home shows and fairs for half a decade before landing their big break: a TV commercial that they produced in 2000 for the stain remover OxiClean.

"That's when the magic happened," says Sullivan. "Mays was a pitchman and he was proud of it. He was the hardest working man in television. He stood behind every product he sold."

In fact, Mays told PEOPLE of the products he hawked, "I use 'em all. All I have is my name and the trust that people give me. A product has to do what it says it does on TV or I won't sell it."

Insurance, Too

Over the years he sold everything from fix-it home products – like Kaboom cleaner and Mighty Putty – to insurance. And thanks to frequent repetition of those ads on TV, plus a bit of self-promotion ("Billy Mays here for OxiClean!"), the bearded pitchman became a star in his own right. Mobbed by fans seeking autographs whn he was out in public, the naturally introverted salesman always obliged: "I would never say no to somebody who wanted a picture," he said.

Now, says Sullivan, Mays will be greatly missed, onscreen and off. "You won't have to turn the TV down anymore," jokes Sullivan of his friend's famously loud voice. "And trust me: you will, as I will, miss Billy."

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