Ron Popeil, Iconic TV Gadget Man, Dies at 86

Ron Popeil, Iconic TV Gadget Man, Dies at 86
Photo: Reed Saxon, AP

Ron Popeil, that guy you watched on TV as a kid selling Ronco dehydrators and bagel cutters, died on Wednesday at 86 years old. According to the New York Times, Popeil died of a brain hemorrhage at a Los Angeles hospital. He is survived by his wife, four daughters, and four grandchildren.

As far as TV salesmen go, Popeil was the master and is credited with creating infomercials. His official biography states he began selling his father’s inventions at flea markets in Chicago as a teen, before hawking a dizzying array of gadgets on TV in the 1960s. Over the next several decades, Popeil became a household name thanks to his catchphrases — “But wait, there’s more!” — and his ability to convince you that yes, you really did need spray-on hair for your dad’s bald spots. Some of the more famous products he sold were the Showtime Rotisserie & BBQ, the Ronco Electric Food Dehydrator, the Bagel Cutter, Pocket Fisherman, and the Veg-O-Matic.

Gizmodo loves gadgets, and although some of Ronco’s wares were dubious in quality, we have to tip our hat to Popeil. But while no one really needed a bagel cutter or a Mr. Microphone, some of Popeil’s inventions actually did work quite well.

In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, I was a latchkey kid who probably spent way too much time watching TV infomercials. I hadn’t developed a healthy sense of scepticism yet, so Popeil’s enthusiasm was infectious. My parents were thrifty people and tried convincing me his infomercials were a scam meant to hawk garbage products to idiots. Nevertheless, I persisted, and eventually, my taciturn father also liked the idea of a dinner you could “set and forget.” So we bought a Showtime Rotisserie & BBQ.

When the box arrived, I was pretty nervous that I’d just wasted my dad’s money but as Popeil promised, it was pretty easy. I impaled a moderately sized chicken on the spit, stuck the spit in the rotisserie, and parked my butt in front of it for an hour, watching as the pale bird turned crispy and golden. It is technically the first dinner I ever cooked for my parents on my own, and surprisingly, it was pretty tasty. My dad, a non-native English speaker, also got a kick out of saying “set it… and forget it!” when I popped the chicken in. We made dinner in that thing every week for a few months before the parts started getting too hard to clean and it eventually collected dust in a box in the basement.

That’s probably how it went for most Ronco gadgets, but Popeil himself earned a spot in pop culture history. He was lampooned by Dan Akroyd on SNL, a floating head in a jar in Futurama, the subject of a Weird Al Yankovic song, “Mr. Popeil”, and his infomercials were featured in The X-Files and Little Miss Sunshine. Personally, I think of Popeil and my dad anytime I pass a rotisserie chicken.