Friday, December 13, 2013

Bill Porter, exceptional salesman with CP who inspired TNT's 'Door to Door,' dies at 81

From The NY Times:

Bill Porter, an Oregon door-to-door salesman who plied his trade for decades despite having severe cerebral palsy, and whose story inspired an Emmy-winning television film starring William H. Macy, died last Tuesday in Gresham, Ore. He was 81. 

The cause was an infection, said Shelly Brady, his longtime assistant. 

From 1962 until his death, Mr. Porter was a salesman for J. R. Watkins, a Minnesota purveyor of grocery, household and personal-care products. The telefilm of his life, “Door to Door,” was broadcast on TNT in 2002 to favorable notices. 

The successful door-to-door salesman must be skilled at driving, walking and talking. Mr. Porter did the first of these not at all and the latter two only with great difficulty. But through a combination of persistence, gregariousness and charm, he was for many years Watkins’s top salesman in the region comprising Oregon, Washington, California and Idaho. 

Mr. Porter came to wide attention in 1995, when he was the subject of an article in The Oregonian, the Portland newspaper. A profile on the ABC newsmagazine “20/20” soon followed, and Mr. Macy, who saw it, was moved to start work on a biographical screenplay. 

“Door to Door,” which also starred Helen Mirren as Mr. Porter’s mother and Kyra Sedgwick as Ms. Brady, won six Emmys. They included an acting award for Mr. Macy; a screenwriting award for Mr. Macy and his co-writer, Steven Schachter; and the award for outstanding made-for-television movie. 

Mr. Porter was the subject of a best-selling inspirational book by Ms. Brady, “Ten Things I Learned From Bill Porter” (2002), and later toured with her as a motivational speaker. 

William Douglas Porter was born in San Francisco on Sept. 9, 1932, to Ernest and Irene Porter; a birth injury left him with cerebral palsy. When he was a youth, the family settled in Portland, where Ernest Porter sold signs to local businesses. 

After graduating from high school, Bill Porter, seeking work, was deemed unemployable by the state. The state offered him disability benefits. Mr. Porter declined. 

Encouraged by his mother to pursue a sales career, he applied to the Fuller Brush Company but was turned away. The Watkins company turned him away, too, until Mr. Porter, in his first successful pitch, persuaded them to give him their most inhospitable territory in Portland. 

He covered it by foot, taking the bus as close as he could get before disembarking to walk his route — eight to 10 miles daily. He had the use of only one hand; in it he carried a briefcase filled with pictures of his products. A traditional sample case would have been too heavy. 

Working on commission, he braved all weather and a spate of slammed doors. Little by little, the orders came, for soap and spices and dog biscuits. When the products arrived, his mother delivered them by car; in later years, when she could no longer manage the task, Mr. Porter hired Ms. Brady. 

In his best weeks, Ms. Brady said, Mr. Porter might earn $300 or $400. In 1997, after being hit by a car while headed out to his rounds, he sold his wares by telephone. 

Mr. Porter, a longtime resident of Gresham, near Portland, leaves no immediate survivors. He had long considered Ms. Brady, her husband, their six children and six grandchildren as family. 

Ms. Brady, who had worked for Mr. Porter since 1980, witnessed a sterling example of his sales prowess in the late 1990s. They were trying to fly to a speaking engagement in Canada: lacking a photo ID, Mr. Porter was barred from boarding. 

Anxious to make the next flight, they drove to Mr. Porter’s home, unearthed his baptismal certificate and raced to the Department of Motor Vehicles. A helpful clerk, who recognized Mr. Porter from local news coverage, fast-tracked his application for a nondriver ID. 

In a matter of minutes, Ms. Brady recalled on Monday, Mr. Porter obtained his ID card and also sold the clerk a large tin of cinnamon.