Ron Popeil, the man largely responsible for infomercials as we know them, who used them to sell products that he had invented, such as the Pocket Fisherman, Hair in a Can spray, Mr. Microphone and many others, has died at the age of 86.
Family sources told TMZ that Popeil had a “severe medical emergency” Tuesday night and died Wednesday morning at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was reportedly “surrounded by his family.”
The prolific inventor sold his first gadgets early on. “At sixteen, Ron began to sell the very products his father’s factory produced in the flea markets on Maxwell street in Chicago,” according to the biography on his official website. “Storing his goods and table in the back of grimy fish store. Ron would start his day there at 5 AM to set up and would gross as much as $500 per day; a huge success for a kid in the 1950’s.”
Popeil later began touring state fairs. He and his business partner rolled out their first commercial, for his Ronco company’s Chop-o-Matic, in the ’50s.
And from there, Popeil and his products took off. Not only did he reportedly break sales records, but he also claimed to have created the first TV commercials and infomercial. At the very least, he was the most notable TV pitchman.
Popeil popularized catch phrases, such as “But wait, there’s more” and “Set it and forget it.” He also influenced the culture, creating a template for what audiences thought an infomercial should be. He was famously parodied by Saturday Night Live‘s Dan Aykroyd in his 1976 “Bass-o-Matic” sketch — which he encored in 2015 to mark the show’s 40th anniversary — and elsewhere.
By the ’80s and ’90s — after years of pitching his products to night owls and home shoppers — Popeil was famous in his own right. He was a guest on Late Night With David Letterman in 1982, Late Night With Conan O’Brien in 1994 and 1995, as well as others over the years. He popped up in various movies and TV shows, and he voiced a character named after him on animated TV series Futurama in 1999.
Popeil sold his company, Ronco, for about $56 million in 2005, according to the New York Times. The newspaper reported in October 2008 that the company was “reviving its in-your-face infomercials, even weaving in historical footage” of Popeil.
According to TMZ, Popeil is survived by his wife, Robin, as well as four children and as many grandchildren.