October 02, 1995 12:00 PM

BACK IN THE MID-’60s, FARMERS around Valparaiso, Ind., thought their neighbor had lost his good sense. Cultivate expensive-to-grow “gourmet” popcorn? No way you could charge triple the going price, they maintained. Undeterred, the soft-spoken man in the bow tie went on to market superfluffy kernels that exploded into a $200 million-plus-a-year empire. More astonishing, he turned Orville Redenbacher into a household name. “We get a lot of calls from people,” he once said, “who want to see if I’m for real.”

The answer: yes—and vigorous to the end. When the 88-year-old entrepreneur died of a heart attack in his Coronado, Calif., condominium on Sept. 19, “it came as a real shock to us,” says his grandson Gary, 40, who had appeared in more than 100 TV commercials with him. Indeed, the twice-widowed Orville, survived by two daughters, 12 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren, had planned to go to Yosemite National Park with his family next week. “He’s in heaven now,” says daughter Billie At wood, 65, “so he can go wherever he wants.”

Redenbacher’s journey began on a farm just outside Brazil, Ind. (pop. 7,640) in 1907. As a teenager, he once said, “I’d plant [popcorn]…and take it to the grocery store to sell it.” But selling his expensive hybrid, which took 24 years to perfect, was less simple. He and a partner eventually made millions producing liquid fertilizer, but no one was interested in his popcorn. And so in 1970, Redenbacher hired a Chicago marketing firm to come up with a sales gimmick. They did: Orville himself. Orville Redenbacher’s Gourmet Popping Corn made him famous—but not superrich. He made only $350,000 when he sold his company to Hunt-Wesson Inc. in 1975. It was a deal he later regretted, but he still delighted in selling the product. “Popcorn,” says Gary, “was his passion.”

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