TV pitchman Anthony Sullivan was faced with an agonizing decision when his business partner and best friend, infomercial superstar Billy Mays, suddenly died last summer, just days before their fledgling Discovery Channel show, ‘Pitchmen,’ ended its first season.
Could the show go on without the dynamic Billy – the legendary blue-shirted, black-bearded, high-energy pitchman for OxiClean, Orange Glo, Mighty Putty and a slew of other products?
“Sully,” as his friends call him, asked himself one question: WWBD (What would Billy do)? Sully decided Billy would want the show to go on. As a result, ‘Pitchman,’ the reality show that gives hopeful real-life inventors a chance at developing and selling their inventions, returns Thursday night (9/8c on Discovery) for its second season.
In an interview with Fancast, Sullivan – the British-born pitchman you’ve seen for years hawking Swivel Sweepers, Turbo Snakes, StickUp Bulbs and countless other gadgets on TV – revealed how his friend’s sudden death on June 28, 2009, affected him and how he made the decision to go on.
When Billy died, just days after the two of you appeared together on ‘The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien,’ you two had really reached a high point in your careers, hadn’t you?
I was so happy to go on ‘The Tonight Show’ with him and – I haven’t really talked about this very much publicly – it was this really strange high point. And I remember going to bed that night thinking: We had a season on Discovery Channel, it looks like we’re gonna get a [second-season] pickup, we were on ‘Conan,’ we made everyone laugh, I’m sitting next to Lisa Kudrow and Elvis Costello – in good company – and this is on ‘The Tonight Show’ and then, Boom! [Billy] dies three days later. [That night] was the last time I saw him.
How’d you feel when you got the news?
It hit me like a ton of bricks. And I really went silent. I was in England. I just couldn’t even believe it had happened and it took me a solid two months to simply wrap my head around it – the burial, the funeral, the shock of losing a friend and business partner. I never even really gave ‘Pitchmen’ much thought at that time. I was just really in sheer mourning and then I went to Colorado, spent some time on my own, hung out in Vail and just did a lot of hiking.
How’d you find your way back to thinking about ‘Pitchmen’ and whether to continue?
I came back to L.A. and started to chat with Discovery Channel and the idea of doing it again came along and my initial reaction was [the same as] everyone else’s kneejerk reaction, which was no, I don’t know if we can do this. And then I kept thinking about it and I asked myself a question: What would Billy do? What would Billy have done? And that’s when I remembered what Billy used to say: ‘Life’s a pitch and then you buy.’ And I’m a pitchman, and I felt that if I didn’t do the show, it was a disservice to what we started. So my mantra was: I want to honor my friend and I want to continue his legacy.
What’s it been like to film the show without him?
It’s been challenging because (a) I miss him and (b) he carried a massive part of the load of the show.
Nevertheless, you are a single act now. How does that change the show’s dynamic?
You know who’s making me laugh this season? The inventors. They’re a non-stop source of entertainment with these crazy inventions and they have really filled the void. These inventors come up with the most crazy ideas and even on my darkest days when I’m thinking, Why am I doing this? Why am I doing ‘Pitchmen’? I miss Billy!, some inventor will come in and show me the most outlandish invention of all time.
You never seem to get tired of the search for new inventions to sell.
Billy always used to say we’re like prospectors sifting for that nugget of gold. I think if we hadn’t gone on with the show, it would have been sending the wrong message. I think the ‘Pitchmen’ stimulus package is better than the administration’s stimulus package. I read in Inc. magazine that the small businessman and entrepreneur is what’s gonna get us back on track and I think ‘Pitchmen’ is about inspiring [such people]. I don’t think corporate America’s going to save us right now. It’s going to be the small businessman.
When the show resumes [with a season premiere episode subtitled ‘Passing the Torch’], will Billy’s absence be accounted for?
I think we had to honor him and we had to move on. And that’s what we did and I think had we spent too much time talking about Billy, it gets sad. I get sad talking about it. One thing I learned: Life does go on, the show must go on, the pitch must go on, and you have to honor your friend and there’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think about him.