Son of pitchman Billy Mays working on documentary about his dad’s life
(TBO.COM) TAMPA, Fla. – Billy Mays Jr., the television personality known for his boisterous sales pitches, black beard, blue shirt and khaki pants, was just beginning to bond with his son when he died in 2009.
Mays and his wife divorced when Billy Mays III was 3, then the salesman hit the road to pursue a career that would culminate in pop icon status.
But beginning in 2007, the father and son — both Pennsylvania natives — finally got the chance to spend time together when their lives brought them to the Tampa Bay area.
“We were becoming more than father and son,” said Billy Mays III, 28, who lives here. “We were best friends and I was at that point as an adult where I could begin learning about who he was beyond my father.”
Mays’ shocking death at age 50 from heart disease left his son with questions he was hoping to one day ask about his life and career.
Six years later, the son is on a journey to learn everything about his father and share his findings through a documentary he is producing on the life of Billy Mays Jr.
“It is very preliminary still,” he said. “I just had the first production meeting this month. It could take us a year to make. Maybe two. I don’t’ have a time table. It will be done when I feel like I can paint an accurate picture of who my father was when those cameras were off.”
Mays was offered opportunities to follow in his father’s footsteps after the man’s death.
He has the same name, after all, and picked up some salesman chops working by his side for two years.
He even gained star power of his own when he was featured on the first season of Discovery Channel’s “PitchMen,” the reality show about his father and fellow television salesman Anthony “Sully” Sullivan helping inventors to market their products.
Grow the same beard, some told him, put on a blue button-down shirt and khaki pants — and sell.
Instead, Mays chose to pursue his dream of music.
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Billy Mays III goes by the stage name Infinite Third, mixing a lone guitar with electronic beats and working to build a fan base around the country.
He performs locally 9 pm. March 13 at Ybor City’s New World Brewery and his music can he heard online at www.infinitethird.com.
“When people used to tell me I should become a pitchman,” Mays said, “I’d say that’s not me. I’m a musician. I am different than my dad.”
He does have a beard, though not as manicured as his father’s. His hair is long, pulled into a bun. And no oxford shirts or khakis for this free spirit.
Still, father and son have at least one thing in common: The desire to bring others along with them on the way to the top.
The elder Mays helped create more than $1 billion in merchandise sales for a variety of inventors, “Forbes” magazine reported after his death.
“Someone would introduce my father to a product and if he liked it he’d agree to help sell it,” his son said. “He changed a lot of lives.”
Mays seeks to do the same through his website www.RememberYouAreDreaming.com, an online music video channel. If he meets a musician who deserves more exposure, he provides the outlet free.
“I think as I learn more about my dad, I’ll realize other similarities we have,” Mays said.
The documentary, while delving into the intricacies of his famous father’s life, will also answer questions fans still have about him.
Yes, Billy Mays Jr. colored his beard.
How many blue shirts did he own? A lot.
Did he really use the merchandise he pitched? Yes, although the son admits you won’t find any Oxyclean at his house.
“It’s a great product,” he said. “But I don’t go out of my way looking for it.”
Perhaps the most shocking revelation: Mays rarely yelled.
“Billy was a gentle soul,” said Anthony Sullivan, who knew and worked with Mays for over two decades. “I know that sounds weird because he was so excitable on television. But once the cameras were off, he was really quiet.”
That serenity, Sullivan added, is another trait he thinks Mays — or B3, as he calls him — shares with his father.
“My father and the guy on TV were different,” Mays said. “The guy on TV was just a persona he knew how to turn on.”
Mays watched his father develop that character.
Whenever Mays’ tour of home shows took him to his son’s place in Pittsburgh, the two would work together at the sales booth.
“I remember being a very little kid sitting under his table and watching him work,” Mays said. “He had an amazing talent for connecting with strangers.”
It was at a home show in Pittsburgh that Mays met Orange Glo International founder Max Appel and was recruited to demonstrate the environmentally friendly line of cleaning products via the St. Petersburg-based Home Shopping Network.
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Billy Mays Jr. moved to the Tampa Bay area full time, starred in a number of commercials and infomercials and transcended the sales business to become part of American pop culture.
His son came to Florida to attend Full Sail University in Orlando, the private school specializing in entertainment, media and the arts.
Following graduation, he decided to join his father in the Tampa Bay area.
“We were close when I was a kid,” Mays said. “He saw me as often as he could and called all the time. He was a good dad. But this was the first time we were able to see each other regularly.”
They were just about inseparable.
“Billy was really excited to have B3 back in his life,” Sullivan said. “Billy made a sacrifice when his son was younger to go on the road because that was how he knew to provide for his family. I don’t think he felt guilty about it, but he was trying to make up for it.”
In the evenings, father and son would hang out watching movies and talking about life.
And by day the son worked as a production assistant on his father’s sets.
“He wanted to give his son his start but he wanted him to earn his way to the top,” Sullivan said. “So he hired him as a PA and wanted to see how much B3 wanted it. He was a hard worker and Billy was so proud of him.”
Among Mays’ favorite memories of working with his father was a meeting with professional wrestler Hulk Hogan at his Clearwater home.
“My father was like a little kid,” Mays said with a laugh. “We were both so excited to meet Hulk Hogan.”
All the while, Mays encouraged his son’s musical aspirations.
“I remember the first time he heard me play. He got quiet, smiled and said, ‘Wait, you’re actually really good.’ He was impressed. That meant a lot.”
But Mays never did get to hear his son’s finished debut album, “Gently.”
He died in June 2009. The album was released in December of that year.
“It bothers me,” Mays said.
Still, the album is linked to his father’s life. When the Discovery Channel produced a tribute show to the salesman, some of his son’s songs were used.
“That was a pretty big deal to have Discovery use his music,” Sullivan said. “Certainly he got a foot in the door because it was his father, but I know for a fact that they would not have used the music if it was not good.”
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The last night the father and son spent together was in Los Angeles when the elder Mays and Sullivan were promoting “PitchMen” as guests on the Tonight Show, then hosted by Conan O’Brien in Hollywood.
Following the taping, the Mays men and Sullivan sat outside their hotel and spoke in awe about the night.
“They were on the ‘Tonight Show.’ It was amazing,” Mays said. “My dad’s career was really just getting started.”
The next morning, Mays returned to his Clearwater apartment while his father flew in New York for meetings.
A few nights later, Billy Mays Jr. was back in bed in his Odessa home. He never woke up.
His son’s reaction on hearing the news? “Wow,” is all he could recall.
“I think B3 still misses his dad and it is taking some time to come to grips with it,” Sullivan said. “It has to be tough. They just started their relationship, it’s going great, and then all of a sudden Billy is gone.”
Mays III has a sister through his father’s second marriage, although he declined to provide her name or whereabouts due to her coveting her privacy. The autopsy report said cocaine was found in Mays’ system, feeding rumors he died of an overdose.
That wasn’t true, his son said. Heart disease was the cause of death and a second autopsy commissioned by his family, he said, concluded that cocaine was not the primary contributor.
“My dad was not perfect,” Mays said. “I’ll admit that. But he was a great man who dedicated much of his life to helping others.”
His father’s notoriety endures.
Mays’ image is used by independent artists in work that appears on T-shirts, coffee mugs, cartoon strips and traditional paintings.
Adults dress up as him for Halloween and film impersonations for YouTube.
“My father loved all that when he was alive so it doesn’t offend me,” Mays said.
In fact, the son runs a website — wheresbillymays.com — that collects findings of his dad’s digital image.
Still, Mays doesn’t want the television persona to define his father — one reason he is making the documentary.
The main reason is a selfish one.
“Even for me it gets hard on some days to remember that part of my dad not captured on camera because that is what I see the most. Those little conversations we had are staring to slip from my memory. I don’t want to forget them all.”