With a sales technique honed as a sidewalk hustler, hypnotic TV pitchman Ron Popeil made a fortune hawking such offbeat yet oddly clever contraptions as the Veg-O-Matic and Mr. Microphone.
As he pioneered, in the middle of the 20th century, what became known as the infomercial, both Popeil and his fervently promoted products became part of the pop-culture landscape.
With typical aplomb, Popeil called his 1995 autobiography “The Salesman of the Century,” a grandiose title that, quite possibly, reflected the truth.
Popeil, who helped create many of the gadgets he sold, died Wednesday night at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, his family said in a statement. He was 86. No cause of death was given.
Popeil’s gated Beverly Hills home was partly a shrine to silly-sounding devices that the silver-tongued Popeil sold over and over with such signature lines as “But wait, there’s more!” and “Isn’t that amazing?”
The quirky products certainly sounded like inventions Americans could live without — an Inside-the-Shell Electric Egg Scrambler, spray-on fake hair in a can, the Pocket Fisherman (“the biggest fishing invention since the hook … and still only $19.95!”), and the counter-size Showtime Rotisserie & BBQ (“Set it and forget it!”), one of his biggest successes.
His redesigned 1975 Veg-O-Matic is enshrined in the Smithsonian’s American Legacies collection alongside the Barbie doll, and comedian Dan Aykroyd vigorously parodied both salesman and machine in Bass-O-Matic skits on “Saturday Night Live” in the 1970s.
Years before he sold his company, Ronco, for $55 million in 2005, Popeil — pronounced “poh-PEEL” — insisted he had moved more than $1 billion worth of merchandise.
“What Henry Ford was to industrial strength and genius, Ron Popeil is to the next generation of American ingenuity,” Robert Thompson, a professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University once told the Associated Press. “People 100 years from now are going to be writing dissertations on him.”
Without Popeil, “there’d be no home shopping channels, no ‘I’ve fallen and I can’t get up’ Medic Alert gadgets, no Clapper,” John Mingo, editor of “The Whole Pop Catalog” told USA Today in 1993.
Ronald Martin Popeil was born May 3, 1935, in the Bronx. When he was 3, his parents divorced and essentially abandoned him.
“I don’t like to talk about my family. It wasn’t very homey,” he said more than once.
Popeil and his older brother spent their early years at a boarding school in upstate New York. Relatives never visited, he later said.
His paternal grandparents claimed the brothers when Ron was about 7, and they lived with an aunt in Florida before moving to Chicago with their grandparents when Popeil was 13.
But his childhood remained unhappy. His grandparents fought constantly and his grandfather was mean, Popeil later said.
In Chicago, Popeil began discovering his family heritage while working weekends at Popeil Brothers, founded by his father and an uncle in 1939.
The father he barely knew was Samuel Popeil, a descendant of sidewalk hustlers and manufacturer of kitchenware. He also came up with such gadgets as the original Veg-O-Matic and Pocket Fisherman.
On Chicago’s gritty Maxwell Street, Popeil turned to selling his father’s inventions and found he had an affinity for it.
“Through sales I could escape from poverty and the miserable existence I had with my grandparents,” Popeil wrote in his autobiography. “I had lived for 16 years in a home without love, and now I had finally found a form of affection and a human connection through sales.”
As a teen out on his own, Popeil peddled wares in the flagship Woolworth’s downtown, doing as many as six demonstrations in an hour.
“He was mesmerizing,” Mel Korey, his first business partner, told the New Yorker in 2000. “There were secretaries who would take their lunch break at Woolworth’s to watch him because he was so good-looking.”
After dropping out of the University of Illinois after 18 months, Popeil worked the fair circuit. He claimed he cleared $1,000 a week, a fortune in the 1950s, and did it by talking 10 to 12 hours a day, almost nonstop.
When a friend told him that he could produce a commercial for about $500 at a Tampa, Fla., television station, Popeil made a two-minute spot in the mid-1950s for the Ronco Spray Gun, a high-pressure nozzle that was one of the few products he sold that he did not help create.
He bought whatever time he could find cheaply on local television stations and sales soared.
“TV made the way for me,” Popeil told Inc.com magazine in 2009. “It put me in the big world.”
A few years later, he starred in and filmed another commercial for the Chop-O-Matic — another product invented by his father.
The Chop-O-Matic was so successful that it led to the reimagined Veg-O-Matic, which was largely responsible for sales growing from $200,000 to $8.8 million in just four years, according to Popeil’s memoir. Yet he insisted his relationship with his father always remained strictly business.
The first contraption that Popeil created himself was the smokeless ashtray. After noticing the need to cover his own bald spot, he came up with a spray formula to cover thinning hair and baldness and named it GLH for “great looking hair.”
For some time, he and his father ran separate public companies that sold similar merchandise.
When his father died at 69 in 1984, his obituary in The Times noted that his second wife, Eloise, had been convicted of trying to have him murdered. After she served a 19-month sentence, the elder Popeil remarried her.
The younger Popeil, who was married four times, admitted to spending too much time on business.
As of 1970, he was worth about $13 million. A recession in the early 1980s affected sales and creditors forced the company to liquidate in 1984.
When Ronco’s trademarks and inventory were auctioned off a few years later, Popeil bought them back for about $2 million.
He launched his return to television in the 1990s as a born-again practitioner of the 30-minute infomercial, which had mainly been developed during his absence. Popeil sold food hydrators and pasta makers — and claimed to make more money than ever.
When he sold Ronco in 2005, he said he wanted to spend more time with his two young daughters. He also committed himself to developing what he said would be his last kitchen gadget, a deep fryer for turkeys.
Popeil is survived by his fourth wife, Robin, whom he married in 1995, and five daughters.