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Mays remembered as ultimate TV pitchman

Television product pitchman Billy Mays is remembered as a pop culture icon at his funeral near Pittsburgh.
Billy Mays Funeral
Pallbearers carry the coffin of the television pitchman Billy Mays from the church where the funeral mass was held in Mays' hometown, in the Pittsburgh suburb of McKees Rocks, Pa., on Friday.Keith Srakocic / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

References to television pitchman Bill Mays' trademark image were everywhere at his funeral Friday near Pittsburgh.

Most mourners wore stickers showing a cartoon image of his distinctive bearded face. The six pallbearers eschewed suits and instead wore bright blue button-down shirts like the ones Mays wore on TV. At the conclusion of the ceremony, they gave a "thumbs up," just as Mays did at the end of one of his commercials.

Mays, whose high-energy hawking turned products like OxiClean from infomercial curiosities into mainstream successes, was remembered as a pop culture icon who never forgot his hometown or spiritual roots.

"He sold more OxiClean than Andy Warhol sold Campbell's Soup," cousin Dean Panizzi said in eulogizing Mays and comparing him to the Pittsburgh-born pop artist who turned soup cans into works of art.

Panizzi's 20-minute eulogy evoked everything from memories of their childhood together — complete with a Christmas Eve remembrance of their parents ringing sleigh bells outside — to Mays' devout Christian faith. Panizzi recited various lines Mays made famous, including "Life's a pitch, and then you buy" and drew a standing ovation parroting Mays' signature introduction, "Hi, Billy Mays here."

Hundreds of mourners packed the black brick, gothic Catholic church in the suburb of McKees Rocks, where Mays was raised, to remember the popular pitchman. Mays developed his style demonstrating knives, mops and other "As Seen on TV" gadgets on Atlantic City's boardwalk and worked for years as a hired gun on the state fair and home show circuits, attracting crowds with his booming voice and genial manner.

Power of persuasion
Mays got his start on TV on the Home Shopping Network and then branched out into commercials and infomercials. He developed such a strong following that he became the subject of a reality TV series, Discovery Channel's "Pitchmen."

"Pitchmen" creator and executive producer Chris Wilson said the outsized personality that earned Mays a place in the pop culture lexicon was paired with an innate ability to reach viewers.

"Billy had an amazing way of just making you believe that everything he said was true," Wilson said Friday. "He didn't sell you, he told you."

The likable personality Mays presented on TV viewers existed in real life, too, Wilson said.

"As great as a pitch man Billy was, he was an even better man and an even better individual," he said.

Master hawker
Outside the funeral, a company owned by fellow "Pitchmen" star Anthony Sullivan handed out the shiny stickers bearing a caricature of Mays' face.

Mays hawked everything from the Wash-matik, a device for pumping water from a bucket to wash cars, to Orange Glo, an environmentally friendly cleaner. Sporting a jet-black beard and coupling high-energy demonstrations with booming pitches, Mays always seemed ready to jump off the screen.

Joanne Barthurst's son graduated from high school with Mays and she watched the funeral procession from her porch across the street. She said Mays' strong ties to his hometown are what made him great. He remained Everyman, even though he was one of the most visible people in the country.

"Watching him on TV and everything like that, his infomercials and stuff, even though he wasn't around you still felt like you had some ties because he was a McKees Rocks boy," she said.

Mays is believed to have died of a heart attack in his sleep June 28 at his home in Tampa, Fla., but further tests are needed to be sure of the cause of death.