Sy Sperling, a businessman who helped bring the hair-loss industry into the mainstream with ubiquitous, self-effacing ads, died on Wednesday at a hospital in Boca Raton, Fla. He was 78.
His death was confirmed by his publicist, Terri Lynn, who said it followed a lengthy illness but did not specify the cause.
Mr. Sperling achieved a kind of cult fame in the 1980s, as a late-night commercial for his business, then called the Hair Club for Men, started playing on televisions around the country. The son of a plumber from the South Bronx, he had no training as an actor and merely stood in a bland room, reciting memorized lines to the camera. But he added a winning kicker.
“Remember,” he said, about to hold up an old photo of his own bald pate, “I’m not only the Hair Club president, but I’m also a client.”
Calls started pouring in from men interested in his hair-restoration salons, which offered various “weaving systems.” Mr. Sperling quickly became the face of male hair loss — however much sat on his head — and helped pave the way for a booming industry in male health and cosmetics.
Often called the Infomercial King of late-night TV, he appeared in bits on “The Tonight Show” and “Saturday Night Live,” stepped into the ring of WrestleMania, and made the rounds on TV talk shows and radio for years.
“Even to this day people stop me in the street,” he told The Wall Street Journal nearly 30 years after the ad first ran. “People perceive me as the guy next door. My speech is imperfect. My whole TV success had to do with the fact that it was believable and that I was able to afford good TV time by going on late at night.”
Seymour Sperling was born in the Bronx on June 25, 1941. His father, David, was a plumber, and his mother, Carrie, was a bookkeeper.
He served in the Air Force while attending college before finding work in sales and home improvement. He started his business out of personal need: He had lost most of his hair by the time he was 25, leaving him feeling insecure.
“I was really unhappy with my appearance,” he told The New York Times in 1993. “And it was destroying my self-confidence.”
With a hair weave, he told The Journal, he felt he could sleep, style his hair and go out on dates without confronting the question that comes with wearing a toupee: “How do you explain, I got to take my hair off now?”
So with about $5,000 and their credit cards, Mr. Sperling and his girlfriend at the time — a hairdresser — bought a defunct salon in Manhattan. There they developed a hair-replacement system that used a very fine nylon mesh, adhesives and hair colored to match the customer’s.
He told The Times that he wanted to remove some of the stigma around baldness.
“For years, men have felt funny even discussing it, much less trying to do something about it,” he said. “I think what I’ve done is remove some of the embarrassment associated with men wanting to improve their looks.”
The commercial that made his career first aired in 1982. It was inspired by titans of industry like Frank Perdue of Perdue Chicken and Victor Kiam of Remington Products, who started appearing in their own ads. “I said, ‘If they could do it with chickens and electric shavers, I’ll do one for hair,’” Mr. Sperling said in a 2007 documentary, “Roots: The Hair-Raising Story of a Guy Named Sy.”
But unlike those businessmen — or the executives of many corporations today — Mr. Sperling endorsed his own product with a personal appeal. “I personified the bald man who wanted to do something about his hair,” he said.
The commercial, filmed as a backup, almost didn’t run. Originally, Mr. Sperling planned to show an athletic client playing tennis, riding a horse and jogging — his hair looking healthy and unruffled by all the activity. But the original ad bombed with viewers, so the Hair Club took a shot on the second.
By the early 1990s, the commercial was airing up to 400 times a day; sales for 1993 totaled $100 million. For a time, there were about 85 salons around the country, including franchises — a testament to the power of television and the business potential of becoming a meme, even in the pre-internet era.
“If not for TV, I’d still be a small-business man,” he told a club at the University of Pennsylvania in 1991. “I’m not an actor, I’m a real guy who’s not overly articulate with a nasal tone from the Bronx.”
Mr. Sperling’s success presaged a boom in male health businesses. The hair treatment Rogaine became available to men in 1988, doctors started prescribing the erectile dysfunction drug Viagra a decade later, and today there is a wide and varied market for “hair wellness” treatments. Mr. Sperling’s company eventually dropped “for Men” from its name, as it grew to serve more women.
“He was the president and he was the client is a clever tag line, but he was a lot bigger than that,” said Spencer Kobren, the founder of the American Hair Loss Association. Mr. Kobren said that by stepping forward, Mr. Sperling was able to greatly destigmatize hair loss in the ’80s and ’90s, bringing an extremely common problem into wider conversation.
“Sy was the first to come out and say it was OK, that it was a problem, and here’s a solution,” Mr. Kobren said.
Mr. Sperling married Susan Weisman on Sept. 28, 1997. It was his third marriage.
In 2000, Mr. Sperling sold his company to a private-equity firm for $45 million. It was eventually acquired by the Japanese company Aderans, which offers hair-loss treatments. In a statement about Mr. Sperling’s death, the Hair Club called him “a visionary with an immense passion for business, innovation and helping others.”
Mr. Sperling, who resided in Hillsboro Beach, Fla., is survived by his wife, Susan Sperling; his daughter, Shari Sperling; his son, Andrew; and his sister, Rosalie Slute.
In the interview with The Journal, Mr. Sperling said he decided to leave the company because “it was time to smell the roses.” For the next 20 years, he lived in what he called semiretirement, hosting a radio show, giving speeches and helping run a charity, the Hair Club for Kids, that gives hair to children who have lost their own because of chemotherapy, alopecia or other conditions.
In those public events, he never appeared with anything less than a full head of hair — though he acknowledged that male baldness was no longer considered the blemish it used to be.
But Mr. Sperling held firm to the end, his publicist said: “He always remained a Hair Club client.”
Jacey Fortin contributed reporting.