The array of gadgets that clutters the red marble expanse of countertop in Ron Popeil’s Beverly Hills kitchen is far more than any human being, even the most obsessive chef, would ever need. Pride of place goes to four Showtime Rotisserie & BBQ ovens, from which the aromas of roasting chicken and sweet sausage fill his six-bedroom home. Blackie and Pasta, Popeil’s overfed Labs, stand by expectantly. “I’m still hungry,” says Popeil, sampling another piece of sausage. Then, in case someone might have missed the message—because conveying the message as pithily as possible is the essence of Ron Popeil—he adds, “You’ve got to stay hungry.”
Feeding his many hungers—for independence, for financial reward, for love itself—has made Popeil a very rich man. He’s a millionaire many times over, thanks to his genius for selling unlikely but popular inventions on TV. In the past two years alone the rotis-series have given him a pretax profit of more than $100 million. Add all the millions from such near-iconic products as the Pocket Fisherman, Miracle Brush, Mr. Microphone, the Ronco Clean Air Machine and Good Looking Hair in a can, and Popeil has, he says, “enough money for many lifetimes.”
So why is a 65-year-old man with a young wife and child and two boats (one being built to his specifications) still showing up at all hours on TV infomercials, decked out in apron and gloves, leading the studio audience in chanting, “Set it and forget it!”—the catchphrase that launched his rotis-series. “Well,” says Popeil. “It’s fun. If you’re a painter, you paint. If you’re an inventor, you invent.”
And if you’re Ron Popeil, you spend every waking moment trying to come up with something quirky to sell, trolling department stores, fairs and home shows. “While other people are shopping for clothes,” he says, “I’m in the housewares department thinking out a new concept.” Not every project works out. Among his failures: a home handwriting analysis kit and a subliminal message tape, to help smokers quit, for example.
Right now, his heart belongs to the rotisserie. “I love that machine,” he says. “But I have to confess when I came out with GLH hairspray, I loved that too. The smokeless ashtray was my favorite too. I love my products.”
Popeil first fell in love with gadgets as a teenager in Chicago, where his father owned an appliance factory. Ron was 16 when he discovered Maxwell Street, in those days a lively, grubby flea market and tourist attraction. Paying wholesale for some of his father’s appliances, he began selling them on the street. “I was stuffing money into my pocket,” he says, “more money than I had ever seen in my life”—as much as $500 a day, big money in 1951.
One of the products was the Spiral Slicer, an ancestor of the Veg-O-Matic food chopper that Popeil would parlay into millions in the mid-1960s. Arriving at 5 a.m. every Saturday and Sunday, young Ron would set up his table and start slicing and dicing his way through as many as 50 lbs. of onions, cabbages and potatoes. “His hand and forearm were like steel,” says Mel Korey, 65, who would become Popeil’s longtime partner. “That comes from doing multiple demonstrations all day.”
Popeil’s journey to the hubbub of Maxwell Street was marked by some slice-and-dice of its own. Born in The Bronx, the second son of Sam and Julia, Ron says he was shipped off at an early age to a remote boarding school in Upstate New York with his brother Jerry—who would die of alcoholism and obesity at age 46 in 1980—after their parents divorced in 1938. “Most of the early years were so painful,” he says, “I blocked them out.” But he does have one memory. “It was a Sunday, and I stood in the middle of the road, and I cried, looking for a car coming, with the hope that a parent would be coming to see me. That vehicle never came. They never visited.”
When he was 8, his paternal grandparents, Isadore and Mary, did show up unexpectedly, to whisk him and Jerry away to Florida to live with them. Although he and Isadore didn’t get along, says Popeil, he adored Mary’s kitchen. “I loved being around the preparation of food, the taste, what you could do with it. I learned all that from her.”
To this day, he’s most at home in his kitchen. “Nobody else dares cook in here,” says Popeil—and that includes Robin Angers, 33, the former swimsuit model who became his fourth wife in 1995 and is the mother of 14-month-old Contessa. “At 4 o’clock in the morning, I’m down here cooking. My wife wakes up and I’m not there. I’m not out with a girlfriend, I’m cooking. I’m always cooking and I’m always making the product better.”
The first of Popeil’s four weddings—to Marilyn Greene, a girlfriend from his single year at the University of Illinois-took place in 1956, after a brief sojourn in New York City. “I hated New York,” he says. “I wanted to get out. I proposed to her.” The marriage lasted seven years—as did two subsequent ones. “I wasn’t someone who went out and cheated on his wife,” says Popeil. “I’d be married for seven years, and I’d meet somebody and that person would become my wife.”
Popeil has two grown children—Kathryn, 42, a homemaker, and Shannon, 39, a demonstrator on his infomercials—from his first marriage, daughter Lauren, 17, from Marriage No. 3 (to Lisa Boehne), as well as Contessa. “Now,” he says, “my wife is not that thrilled about having another child, but I want my youngster to have a sibling.”
While Popeil’s marriages waxed, waned and crumbled under the weight of his long hours, business prospered. After years on the road, selling at state and county fairs and department stores, relentlessly pushing such whimsically titled products as the Feather Touch Knife, the Kitchen Magician and the Plastic Plant Kit, he got together with Korey in 1964 to form Ronco. Buying the rights to a garden hose attachment that, the manufacturer claimed, could wax and wash cars, clean second-floor windows and fertilize lawns, they slapped the Ronco name on it and began marketing it on TV. In four years Popeil sold a million of them, at $6.88 each. “I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time,” says Popeil. “In those days you could market empty boxes on television and sell them. It was hard not to be successful.”
But in 1984, despite a string of successes, Ronco went bankrupt, and Popeil went into semi-retirement. Lured back to TV in 1990 by the new world of shopping channels and infomercials, he picked up where he had left off, selling the Ronco Electric Food Dehydrator. Next came commercials for the Veg-O-Matic, Mr. Dentist and Mr. Microphone.
And this time, he became something else—a semicelebrity. “It’s ‘Hey, Ron, set it and forget it, right?’ “he says, “or ‘I know your face, you’re in the movies, right?’ ” As TV producer Larry Thompson, a Popeil pal, puts it, “Just like William Shatner will always be Captain Kirk, Ron Popeil, without ever having made a movie, is part of our pop culture.” His status was affirmed during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August. The convention, declared Dan Rather on CBS, had degenerated into “a flagrant act of hyperbole. Popeil politics, as in Ron Popeil, king of the infomercial.”
It wasn’t meant as a compliment, either to the Democrats or to Popeil, who nevertheless proudly replays a tape of Rather’s commentary for guests on the TV in his kitchen. “I felt very flattered,” he says. So flattered, in fact, that Popeil sent Rather his very own Showtime Rotisserie & BBQ.
John Hannah in Beverly Hills