Ron Popeil has died. An pioneer in television marketing (and, to a lesser extent, the world of kitchen-adjacent gadgetry), Popeil is best known as the founder and face of Ronco, the company that helped transform “As Seen On TV!” into a mantra for a generation of overtly earnest TV pitchpeople. Per TMZ, Popeil died Wednesday morning at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, after experiencing a “severe medical emergency” on Tuesday night. Popeil was 86.
Born in New York in the 1930s, Popeil came by his inventor/salesman bona fides honestly, having started at age 17 in the family business at Chicago’s Popeil Brothers manufacturing facility. Working under his father, Samuel, Popeil helped sell items like his dad’s Chop-O-Matic and Veg-O-Matic line of home food processors, pitching them cheerfully to a nation of eager consumers. Efforts to demonstrate said products—which reportedly required so much produce to show off their fast-chopping action that it became a pain to lug them around on a person-by-person basis— eventually brought Popeil to his true home: In front of the camera, and into the welcoming arms of television itself.
Few men have ever matched, and shaped, the spirit of a medium more thoroughly than Ron Popeil, whose big, wide smile and boundless enthusiasm could make anything—pocket-mounted fishing rods, in-egg egg scramblers, spray-on-hair—seem like the solution to a problem his TV audiences had been completely unaware they’d had just moments before. Founding Ronco in the 1960s, Popeil spread his act across the airwaves, filling ad spots, and, later, making the infomercial an inescapable fixture of late-night TV. Sometimes the products he pitched were his own inventions, but that barely seemed to matter to Popeil, who would sell a smokeless ashtray or a Mr. Microphone or a Ronco Record Vacuum with all the conviction of a man apparently convinced he was saving the world from its most tiresome ills. And it’s worth remembering that these products, while easy to mock, were not just jokes; the Smokeless Rotisserie (“set it and forget it!”) wound up selling something like 8 million units in the U.S. alone, solidifying Ronco’s fortunes for years.
Popeil sold the company in 2005, by which point he had become a minor household American god, immortalized in Saturday Night Live sketches, a million “slice it and dice it” references, and, of course, a pretty decent B-52s riff from Weird Al Yankovic. The company itself eventually foundered, but its legacy—and Popeil’s—remains secured in a million parodies and gags, as well as in the vibe of any salesman who looks deep into a camera and promises you that you truly need the electric food dehydrator they’re pitching.