by Rich Herschlag
He was only fifty. He had dozens of upcoming appearances planned. His sudden death this past week sent shock waves around the world. There were warning signs, but in the end few people saw it coming. The exact cause of his death is the topic of endless speculation and will not be known for some time. Until that time, the rumor mill will be in full swing on cable news shows and blog sites as this tragic story increasingly takes on a strange new life of its own.
He was an innovator. He was just entering his golden years, and perhaps his best days were ahead of him. He was as white as they come but was loved by fans of all colors. He was a household face even to little kids who weren’t around during his heyday.
He was the voice of a generation. When you heard that voice you stopped whatever you were doing. Just about everyone remembers where they were the first time they heard it. He was personally responsible for moving billions of dollars worth of product and was considered by many to be a corporate genius. But no one should ever forget what he was at heart—an artist.
Literally everyone was familiar with his work. Yet few of us can really say we knew him. Beyond his public persona, he led a quiet, reclusive life behind walls of economic privilege most of us could only imagine. His indiscretions are better left unspoken. He remains as he was—a friend, a figure larger than life, but in the end a mystery. An enigma.
His work will live on forever. He helped change the face of television. His performances—whether three minutes or fifteen—were each memorable in their own way. He executed his craft with such ease he was ultimately taken for granted.
He came from humble origins but lived the American dream. He had thousands of imitators but no equal. He was an icon. He was an original.
Infomercial pitchman Billy Mays will be missed. But he will never be forgotten.
Rich Herschlag is the author of Before the Glory: 20 Baseball Heroes Talk About Growing Up and Turning Hard Times Into Home Runs (HCI, 2007). His other books include Lay Low and Don’t Make the Big Mistake (Simon & Schuster, 1997) and The Interceptor (Ballantine, 1998).