Ron Popeil Hawked the Veg-o-Matic and Made the World Safe for Late Night TV Pitchmen

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Illustration by Britt Spencer for Newsweek

The recent passing of 86-year-old gizmo guru Ron Popeil will yield few flags lowered in his honor, despite his having waged endless war for our fleeting attention for decades. Granted, salesmen are salesmen, not men of action or valor, but give Ron props for being the perfect pitchman for the new, cathode-ray times he came up in—with the hard sell, rat-a-tat rhythm of the immigrant boardwalk peddler only just slightly modified for the cooler medium of television.

Hearing Ron Popeil monomaniacally extol the life-changing virtues of a vegetable-shredding geegaw—for a full half-hour, no less—was a slightly higher-tech variant on the hysterical, vaudeville-era carnival barker, with juicers and food dehydrators taking the place of bearded women and vitalizing, cocaine-spiked tonics.

Ron learned the fast-talking, tricky trade at his O.G. father Sam's knee—it was the visionary gadget-Galileo Popeil the Elder who made and marketed the hot-selling mechanical siblings, Veg-o-Matic and Chop-o-Matic.

Ron distributed said products before reinventing himself in 1964 as Ronco Inc. and competing directly with dear old dad like a grateful son should. Or perhaps Popeil II felt residually aggrieved that Sam had consigned him and his brother to an orphanage after divorcing their mother. Needless to say, considerable enmity and estrangement came to pass, as well as great fortune for all concerned. Ron was worth an icy $200 million when he passed.

Generational warfare aside, let it be said that Ron Popeil went on to create a stainless-steel legacy of semi-gratuitous, lifestyle-enhancement products that you didn't know you needed before seeing his latest 60-second commercial, and later, half-hour infomercial. The advent of cable TV meant 24/7 Ron-All-Day if you were a time-wasting masochist like myself. I freely admit I was a little obsessed with the guy, but may I offer a lame-but-true excuse for my unhealthy Popeil dependency?

You see, my own dear dad, Rubin Weiss, was a pro pitchman himself, albeit with a theater arts background and a rough-and-resonant larynx that kept him in the front-rank of voiceover bigshots in our hometown of Detroit, and later, nationally. Sam Popeil's stomping grounds were in nearby Chicago, and he eventually conscripted my father to voice a soon to be ubiquitous and also highly annoying Veg-o-Matic commercial. They remained friends for years.

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Rubin Weiss directs a 1955 TV program. Courtesy of David Weiss

"Why cut onions the old way?" my father asked incredulously as a beleaguered housewife wiped her weepy eyes over a kitchen cutting board. "With Veg-o-Matic, the only tears you'll cry are tears of joy!"

Of course, such an unintentionally funny, cornball pitch later became the stuff of kitsch, as Saturday Night Live and other postmodernists discovered Ron's work and took great joy in sending him up. Remember Dan Aykroyd blending a whole fish in the Bass-O-Matic? Even Weird Al wrote a song called "Mr. Popeil"—that's 15 minutes of infamy and then some. Not to mention guest shots on Letterman, Conan and Larry King.

Mind you, if masticating produce for "cold slaw" (as Ron pronounced it in an early TV spot) wasn't a priority in your life, it's still quite possible that one of Ronco's other fad-seeking missiles found you reaching for your credit card in the middle of the night. In which case, the Pocket Fisherman, Mr. Microphone, Rhinestone Stud Setter, Pasta Maker, Smokeless Ashtray or Electric Food Dehydrator might well have caught your eye. At 3 a.m., it's either Ron Popeil or greedy televangelists praying for your hard-won dollars, so take your pick: eternal salvation or tasty salmon jerky. I myself might go with the fish.

No less than Malcolm Gladwell was generous enough to dub Popeil an "inventor" in a reverent New Yorker piece, "The Pitchman." But, come on now, one doesn't immediately think of Popeil in the same mental breath as Henry Ford or Thomas Edison. Ron knew the difference himself, and was often quoted saying he'd rather have invented Velcro than Mr. Microphone. One point for humility.

Yes, the phonograph and horseless carriage were transformative examples of industrial know-how, whereas —to be selectively cruel—Ron's GLH-9 skull-spray and follicle simulator was at best a future punchline in the making. Bald spot? Pick a color and powder-coat the offending pothole with Ronco's hair-in-a-can (and make sure to save enough to tag a subway car later).

The individual merits of Popeil's whatsit oeuvre aside, what glued my eyes to the tube were the shoestring, primitive production values that informed the look and feel of a Ronco production. De rigueur was the hired audience of wildly-clapping shills who, when prompted, also offered canned testimony lauding the utility and ease of his latest miracle device. And the sloppy, jump-cut edits looked like the work of a nearsighted butcher, not a practiced post-production hand. Hell, they probably used the Chop-O-Matic in the editing room as well—that's how versatile it is! (Orson Welles cut Citizen Kane on one, or so it is rumored.)

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Ron Popeil, who pioneered the "infomercial" format, died on July 28 at 86. SMXRF/Star Max/GC Images/Getty

But I was even more fascinated and, frankly, mildly appalled by the brutally brusque, no-nonsense persona Ron crafted for the occasion, so woe betide women like poor Nancy Nelson, who often served as his hausfrau-ish and perky co-host. Case in point: While demo'ing his electric pasta-making machine, Ron interrupted her (admittedly inane) support patter constantly, at one point exhorting her to cut the idle claptrap and add a damned cupful of flour to the infernal spaghetti machine.

"Dump it in, dump it in!" he snapped as she tried to ask him yet another filler question. "Okay, don't talk to me," she sotto voce'd with a slight eye-roll and a wounded glance at the audience. "Just dump it in!" The obedient touts groaned and tittered a bit on her behalf, and frankly I wanted to break the fourth wall and arrest Generalissimo Popeil for creating a hostile work environment. Today, he might be facing time for such an indecorous display of second-banana shaming.

As for a fitting epitaph, it's regrettable that one of the marketing maestro's most quotable taglines was later revised to avoid costly civil liability lawsuits. The outside surface of the indispensable Ronco Showtime Rotisserie apparently superheated like the space shuttle tiles on reentry, and Popeil had to edit his immortal "set it and forget it" battle cry to warn home chefs against a prospective trip to the burn ward.

Here's hoping that the man himself is headed for a far cooler destination, and that we will never forget his place in the roster of pre-Cuisinart kitchen-gadget legends. Onions or not, we shed a tear in your memory, Ron Popeil.