Of the four celebrities to pass this week, perhaps the least well known, but in some cases the most well known, has disturbed me the most. Pitchman Billy Mays died unexpectedly last night, cause yet to be determined. He was my age. 50.
It’s been a bad week to be a celebrity. First, Ed McMahon passed. Ed was in his 80’s, had financial problems, and I don’t think anyone was terribly surprised that he passed away. Ed had a great run. 30 years as Johnny Carson’s sidekick, and he defined the sideman. Anyone over about 30 knows instantly McMahon’s signature line HEERRREEESSSSSSSS JOHNNY! It was sad that Ed passed away, but not unexpected.
So, too with Farrah Fawcett. She fought a very public battle with cancer, and her passing was again sad, but one of those things that mostly drew a reaction of “wow, that’s really sad.” She was iconic, and beautiful, Like so many teenage boys in the ‘70’s Farrah Fawcett defined femininity for me and pretty much a generation.
The news Michael Jackson had died was shocking, but he had become such an oddball that much of the reaction was in the vein of “that’s sad, but geeze, he was into so many weird things that it’s really not a big surprise.” For all his brilliance, Jackson had become a caricature of himself. I know he was working on a comeback tour, and we’ll now never know how that would have worked out. Jackson was almost a tragic figure, genius that seemed to be wasted. He, too, was my age.
But Billy Mays was at the top of his game as a pitchman. Even though he was often parodied for his signature lines “But Wait, There’s More!” and “But I’m Still Not Done!”, Billy Mays could proverbially sell refrigerators to Eskimos. I thought he was the same kind of parody of himself until I stared watching “Pitchmen”, on Discovery Channel, I think. Not sure, because we DVR the show and watch it on our schedule.
Watching “Pitchmen” gave me a new appreciation for not only the people standing in front of the camera, but for the care they take in selecting the products and the scientific approach in how they were sold. The spots are called “shows”, not commercials. And at 2 to 30 minutes each, they were shows. Programs with the sole purpose of selling you something for $19.99. Billy and his partner Anthony “Sully” Sullivan didn’t like to break that 20 dollar barrier unless they had something like the counter-rotating saw. The products were focus-grouped, field-tested, and still sometimes flopped. But for some, including the pitchmen, they made millions. Billy Mays drove a Bentley.
Billy was on a commercial flight that experienced a very rough landing Friday. My sister, a former ER trauma nurse, speculates (and it us just speculation, an autopsy is scheduled for Monday) he suffered a slight tear in his heart, and bled out in his sleep. She’s seen in before, and it happened to someone we knew in high school.
But Billy was more than just the pitchman. He seemed to really care about the products he pitched, because it was his reputation riding on every one. And through watching the show, we learned that he supported his friends, tried to be a good dad to his young kids, and helped his extended family as well. We got to know Billy Mays not as a cartoon character with a dark beard hawking everything from Oxy-Clean to Mighty Putty, but a human being. A guy with a job who had lived the American dream, coming from very humble beginnings to being a household name in a very competitive industry. I think that was the surprising thing, and one that made the huckesterism palatable. In fact, it became fun to see a Billy Mays commercial, particularly one that was featured on the show. Knowing what went into selecting the product and making the spot made it somehow more compelling to watch. Of course, I’m sure that’s one of the reasons Billy and Sully agreed to do the show.
So, of the four celebrities who passed this past week, I think Billy Mays is in some ways the most tragic and shocking, and certainly the least expected. I kind of understand the outpouring of grief for a Michael Jackson, who sold millions of records and got years of airplay … three to five minutes at a time. It’s like the passing of Elvis, really, A musical force gone long before he should have been. And with Fawcett, it was just that so many of us dreamed of having her as our girlfriend, obviously an unobtainable goal. But women understood that, and millions of teenage girls in the ’70’s tried to copy her signature mane of blond hair. But it’s Billy Mays, the pitchman, for whom I feel the most loss. Maybe there’s a kinship there as a broadcaster that makes me feel that way, or maybe it’s just that he truly lived the American Dream, or that he was my age, or some combination of all three.
I think for his epitaph, carved on his tombstone, should be the legend “But I’m Still Not Done!”
Auf Weidersehen, Billy Mays.