Famed Ad Pitchman Billy Mays Dies at 50

OxiClean Spokesman Also Starred in Discovery TV Series

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FLORENCE, Ky. (AdAge.com) -- Legendary pitchman Billy Mays, who turned high-volume TV ads for products such as OxiClean and Mighty Putty into pop celebrity and fortune, was found dead early this morning in his home at 50.

Billy Mays
Billy Mays
The cause of death remains unclear. Mr. Mays, who was also a star of the Discovery Network TV show "Pitchmen," was found unresponsive by his wife on Sunday morning at his Tampa, Fla., home, and a fire rescue crew pronounced him dead at 7:45 a.m.

Mr. Mays was on a US Air flight from Philadelphia that made a rough landing in Tampa yesterday, and his wife told investigators he didn't feel well before he went to bed, the AP reported. Mr. Mays said on his Twitter feed yesterday, "Just had a close call landing in Tampa. The tires blew out upon landing. Stuck in the plane on the runway. You can always count on US Air." He later told a Tampa TV station that he had been struck on the head as items flew from the overhead compartment during the landing.

Cause of death unknown
A US Air spokesman confirmed that Mr. Mays was a passenger on flight 1241, which had a rough landing when two front tires blew out. He said 138 passengers and five crew deplaned safely with no injuries reported. "We're very saddened to learn of Mr. Mays' passing," the US Air spokesman said. "And our thoughts are with his family. Until an autopsy, we're cautioning the media not to speculate on any correlation, because no one knows that the cause of death is."

Tampa medical examiners are expected to release results of an autopsy tomorrow or Tuesday.

Mr. Mays had been on a trip in which he shot a new commercial with his production company, Four Blind Mice, and met with executives of Church & Dwight Co., marketer of two brands he had long pitched, OxiClean and Arm & Hammer. Earlier in the week, he had shot an appearance on "The Tonight Show" on NBC, one more indication of how his prolific work in direct-response TV has turned him into a pop-culture icon.

As loud as he was on air, however, he was soft-spoken in person. He worked his way from pitching products at mall shows and convention centers near Pittsburgh to the Atlantic City boardwalk, where some veteran pitchmen taught him the tricks of the trade. "I never really did know why they did," Mr. Mays told Ad Age in March. But he worked to pay them back by establishing Four Blind Mice, which donates profits to provide health and retirement benefits for the Atlantic City pitchmen.

$200 million powerhouse
Mr. Mays' breakthrough came with ads for OxiClean in 2001, then owned by the Appel family and Orange Glo International. Mr. Mays helped build that business into a $200 million powerhouse before it was purchased by Church & Dwight Co. in 2006.

Mr. Mays starred with longtime producer and friend Anthony Sullivan in "Pitchmen," which made its debut in April. In a statement, Discovery Channel said: "Everyone that knows him was aware of his larger-than-life personality, generosity and warmth. 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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