Billy Mays, the king of infomercials who died suddenly over the weekend, got his start in Atlantic City and his style from working crowds on the boardwalk.
Mays, 50, grew up near Pittsburgh in McKees, Pennsylvania and moved to Atlantic City in 1983 with a high school friend who wanted to become a salesman. Mays helped him out by hawking his first product, the WashMatik.
"I was selling this thing called the WashMatik, a washing device that worked out of a bucket … (telling the crowd), 'The power of your arm is pulling the water out of the bucket,'?" Mays recalled during an April interview with the St. Petersburg Times. He imitated the booming voice he used to draw crowds.
Mays went to bed Saturday and never woke up. An autopsy was performed and the medical examiner said Monday Mays likely died from a heart attack.
One of the last people he talked to that night was his good friend Bill McAlister back in Philadelphia.
"He was just one of those people who calls you up, cares, asks how's your wife, how are your children," said McAlister.
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The two first met at a home show in Philadelphia 14 years ago when they were both doing demonstrations for different products. (McAlister owns Mighty Putty). Eventually, Mays signed on to pitch products for McAlister's company, Media Enterprises.
"He was just one of those people who everything good that people say about him was absolutely true," said McAlister. "What most people don't know about him is that he's a different person behind camera than he is in person. He's so soft-spoken, you can barely hear him."
Mays was one of those people that other people just liked being around. "People relate to him. He's approachable. You could ask him for an autograph and he'd always take the time."
The two men went to the Super Bowl this year and when they walked into the NFL Experience where players are the big attraction, "withing seconds there's a 150 people around us and they're all asking Billy for autographs," McAlister said. "He's one of those guys who never forgot where he started."
The move from the boardwalk to the home show circuit led to another big break for Mays. During a home show in Pittsburgh, the founder of Orange Glo International recruited Mays to demonstrate the product line for the Home Shopping Network. Commercials and infomercials followed. Mays most recently adventure was "Pitchmen," a Discovery Channel series following Mays and Anthony Sullivan, another of the most famous and successful pitchmen in history.
McAlister was ready to launch a new commercial today by Mays, but held off and pulled the company's other Mays spots off the air this week. He expects to be one of thousands to attend the funeral being planned for Mays later this week in Pittsburgh.