Ron Popeil, a made-for-TV inventor and salesman whose infomercial stardom persuaded millions of Americans to buy the Veg-O-Matic, Pocket Fisherman and dozens of other products they had no idea they needed, died Wednesday at a hospital in Los Angeles. He was 86.
The cause was a brain hemorrhage, his sister Lisa Popeil said.
Popeil’s mastery of television marketing, dating to the 1950s but spanning several decades, made him nearly as recognizable onscreen as the TV and movie stars of his era. Several of his catchphrases — especially “But wait! There’s more” and “set it and forget it” — have endured beyond his retirement.
And many American homes still have, or once had, the products he hawked, some schlocky gizmos that were quickly discarded and others long-running fixtures: the Showtime Rotisserie & BBQ, the Ronco Electric Food Dehydrator, Popeil’s Pasta & Sausage Maker, Mr. Microphone, the Bagel Cutter and the Inside-the-Shell Egg Scrambler, among them.
The products chopped, charred, shined, sharpened, cleaned, massaged, folded a fishing rod into a pocket and covered bald spots with a spray can. He sold them all without shouting, a folksy, calming presence that made half-hour infomercials their own form of entertainment as he demonstrated the product and set up testimonials from the audience.
“Ron literally invented the business of direct-response TV sales,” Steve Bryant, a one-time QVC host, said in 1994. “Ron paints in very definable brush strokes, and every doubt in the customer’s mind is wiped away.”
Popeil (pronounced poh-PEEL) was born in New York on May 3, 1935. His parents divorced when he was young and he lived with grandparents in Chicago. He said he missed out on having a true childhood.
“I never had a birthday party,” he once said.
His father, Samuel Popeil, was the inventor of the Chop-O-Matic and several other well-known items, and as a teenager Ron began selling his father’s inventions at a Walgreen’s store in Chicago.
He described his relationship with his father, who died in 1984, as all business. In 1974, Samuel’s second wife, Eloise, was convicted of attempting to hire two men to murder him. After serving 19 months of her sentence, the couple later remarried.
After getting his start selling his father’s products, Popeil created his own company, Ronco, which he sold in 2005 for about $56 million. The company’s sales dropped 35% in the year that followed, and the company went bankrupt within two years before being revived in 2008.
“The Popeil-Ronco story goes back to the old pitch traditions of when somebody used to stand up at a county fair or on a boardwalk and, through nuances of word, voice, gestures, could get somebody to stop in their tracks and buy something they would never consider buying,” Tim Samuelson, author of “But Wait! There’s More!,” a book about the Popeil family, said in 2008.
After the company’s creditors forced it to be liquidated in 1984, Popeil bought its trademarks and inventory back for about $2 million. A few years later, he spent $33,000 to make a one-hour infomercial for a food dehydrator, and nearly $60 million over the years to broadcast it on local stations and cable channels. It resulted in more than $90 million in sales, he said.
His ubiquitous placement on stations across the country helped make him a household figure. His gadgets were lampooned by Dan Aykroyd on “Saturday Night Live” and in a Weird Al Yankovic song called “Mr. Popeil.”
“I’ve gone by many titles: King of Hair, King of Pasta, King of Dehydration, or to use a more colloquial phrase, a pitchman or a hawker,” Popeil said in 1995. “I don’t like those phrases, but I am what I am. Pick a product, any product on your desk. Introduce the product. Tell all the problems relating to the product. Tell how the product solves all those problems. Tell the customer where he or she can buy it and how much it costs. Do this in one minute. Try it. You know what it sounds like? It comes out like this: Brrrrrrrrrrr.”
In addition to his sister Lisa, Popeil is survived by his wife, Robin; daughters Kathryn Gantman, Lauren Popeil, Contessa Popeil and Valentina Popeil; another sister, Pamela Popeil; and four grandchildren.