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Ron Popeil, TV pitchman who hawked Veg-O-Matic, Mr. Microphone and more, dies

Valerie J. Nelson, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

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.

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