TAMPA, Fla. – Television viewers knew him as the OxiClean guy: the bearded, boisterous pitchman on commercials airing hundreds of times a week nationwide. "Hi. Billy Mays here," he would begin, before showing off his latest cleaning product or gadget.
Family, friends and colleagues mourned Mays, 50, who was found unresponsive in his Tampa home Sunday, and awaited an autopsy to determine the cause of his sudden death.
Police said Mays told his wife he didn't feel well when he went to bed Saturday night. Earlier in the day, he said he was hit on the head when his airliner had a rough landing at Tampa Bay's airport.
But the airline said no passengers reported any serious injuries, and Mays himself cheerfully recounted the landing for a local TV station. His wife, Deborah, found him unresponsive Sunday morning.
Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said linking Mays' death to the landing would "purely be speculation." She said Mays' family members didn't report any health issues with the pitchman, but said he was due to have hip replacement surgery in coming weeks.
"Although Billy lived a public life, we don't anticipate making any public statements over the next couple of days," Deborah Mays said in a statement. "Our family asks that you respect our privacy during these difficult times."
Billy Mays' face was easily recognizable, pitching OxiClean, that he said got out even the toughest of stains, and Orange Glo, which he said shined up any wood around your home. "I love beautiful wood," he tells customers.
There were no signs of a break-in at the home, and investigators do not suspect foul play, said Lt. Brian Dugan of the Tampa Police Department, who wouldn't answer questions about how Mays' body was found because of the ongoing investigation.
U.S. Airways confirmed that Mays was among the passengers on a flight that made a rough landing on Saturday afternoon at Tampa International Airport, leaving debris on the runway after apparently blowing its front tires.
Tampa Bay's Fox television affiliate, WTVT-TV, interviewed Mays afterward.
"All of a sudden as we hit you know it was just the hardest hit, all the things from the ceiling started dropping," MyFox Tampa Bay quoted him as saying. "It hit me on the head, but I got a hard head."
Laura Brown, spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said she did not know if Mays was wearing his seat belt on the flight because the FAA was not investigating his death.
U.S. Airways spokesman Jim Olson said there were no reports of serious injury due to the landing. "If local authorities have any questions for us about yesterday's flight, we'll cooperate fully with them," he said.
Born William Mays in McKees Rocks, Pa., on July 20, 1958, Mays developed his style demonstrating knives, mops and other "As Seen on TV" gadgets on Atlantic City's boardwalk. For years he worked as a hired gun on the state fair and home show circuits, attracting crowds with his booming voice and genial manner.
AJ Khubani, founder and CEO of "As Seen on TV," said he first met Mays in the early 1990s when Mays was still pitching one of his early products, the Shammy absorbent cloth, at a trade fair. He said he most recently worked with Mays on the reality TV show "Pitchmen" on the Discovery Channel, which follows Mays and Anthony Sullivan in their marketing jobs.
"His innovative role and impact on the growth and wide acceptance of direct response television cannot be overestimated or easily replaced; he was truly one of a kind," Khubani said in a statement.
After meeting Orange Glo International founder Max Appel at a home show in Pittsburgh in the mid-1990s, Mays was recruited to demonstrate the environmentally friendly line of cleaning products on the St. Petersburg-based Home Shopping Network.
Commercials and informercials followed, anchored by the high-energy Mays using them while tossing out kitschy phrases like, "Long live your laundry!"
Sarah Ellerstein worked closely with Mays when she was a buyer for the Home Shopping Network in the 1990s and he was pitching Orange Glo products.
"Billy was such a sweet guy, very lovable, very nice, always smiling, just a great, great guy," she said, adding that Mays met his future wife at the network. "Everybody thinks because he's loud and boisterous on the air that that's the way he is, but I always found him to be a quiet, down-to-earth person."
His ubiquitousness and thumbs-up, in-your-face pitches won Mays plenty of fans for his commercials on a wide variety of products. People lined up at his personal appearances for autographed color glossies, and strangers stopped him in airports to chat about the products.
"I enjoy what I do," Mays told The Associated Press in a 2002 interview. "I think it shows."
Mays liked to tell the story of giving bottles of OxiClean to the 300 guests at his wedding, and doing his ad spiel ("powered by the air we breathe!") on the dance floor at the reception. Visitors to his house typically got bottles of cleaner and housekeeping tips.
His former wife, Dolores "Dee Dee" Mays, of McKees Rocks, recalled that the first product he sold was the Wash-matik, a device for pumping water from a bucket to wash cars.
"I knew him since he was 15, and I always knew he had it in him," she said of Mays' success. "He'll live on forever because he always had the biggest heart in the world. He loved his friends and family and would do anything for them. He was a generous soul and a great father."
Besides his wife, Mays is survived by a 3-year-old daughter and a stepson in his 20s, police said.