Death of Billy Mays leaves his growing empire in doubt

The death of a direct-to-consumers product spokeman isn't ordinarily something that would send ripples through the media world. But Billy Mays, who died unexpectedly on Sunday at age 50, was no ordinary spokesman. He was, rather, both a true entrepreneur in an industry of pretenders and a budding TV star, thanks to his role on Pitchmen, the new Discovery Channel series on which he co-starred.

Mays's mainstream fame was a relatively recent development, says Remy Stern, who profiled him in his recent book about the infomercial industry, But Wait...There's More! " For years, he'd been on television pitching other people's products," Stern says. "But a couple of years ago, he branched out and started his own infomercial production company, in partnership with fellow pitchman Anthony Sullivan, so they could not only promote various products, but could have a financial stake in them as well. Then, of course, his reality show debuted a couple of months ago, which brought him a whole new level of mainstream fame. So the timing of this is really tragic."