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Late Night Drama With the King of Infomercials

It’s the middle of the night and you can’t sleep. You turn on the TV in hopes it’ll lull you into submission. Click, click, click. You flip through the channels. Even the late shows are over, and each station has transformed into a two-dimensional bazaar, a seemingly endless marketplace. There’s a cleaning product that promises to remove pretty much any stain, an unfathomably nimble broom and a pet-hair remover sure to brighten any cat lady’s day. What do these problem-solving products have in common? They’re all promoted by a television legend: Anthony Sullivan, the king of infomercials.

The pitchman, also known as “Sully,” first started selling in his home village of West Croyde, located in the West Country of England. He learned by closely watching the old-time hawkers there, savoring their every convincing word and losing himself in their endless charm. He then moved his hawking hustle to the bustling streets of London, where the crowds were bigger and the stakes were higher. While working in Old Blighty, Sullivan saw his first infomercial. It was then he realized he needed to get off the streets and in front of the cameras.

Like so many who dream of bright lights and big paychecks, Sullivan sold everything he had and headed to the U.S. He arrived in the early ’90s and worked boat shows, trade shows, home shows and any other show that would have him up and down the West Coast. Eventually, he found himself selling a product called SmartMop at home shows in Florida. One fateful day, a talent scout from the Home Shopping Network, that bastion of always-on, bring-the-mall-to-your-living-room programming, witnessed Sullivan in action. And so, a star was born on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Sullivan got right to work when he made his television debut in 1993, selling 5,000 mops in 22 minutes. It was also at the Home Shopping Network that he reconnected with a frenemy, fellow pitchman Billy Mays. The two had their first showdowns on the home-show circuit. Neither had college degrees; both had hustle. Mays had gotten his start on the Atlantic City boardwalk and at fairs, and in the mid-’90s, he got his big break selling a line of products like Orange Glo and OxiClean on HSN.

Down the line, Sullivan and Mays would collaborate as producer and talent, respectively, on OxiClean ads—spots that made Billy wildly and unforgettably famous for the rest of his relatively short life. At only 50 years old, the Pennsylvania-born salesman was found dead at home, leaving his best friend and former rival Sullivan to continue his high-volume legacy.

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