Israeli television's one-time "king of ratings", Dudu Topaz, yesterday hanged himself in his prison cell while on trial facing charges of hiring hitmen to target television executives he believed were barring him from a comeback.
The entertainer, who had been hugely successful and was still a household name in Israel, was found dead at about 7.10am. He had apparently used an electric cable in the cell's shower to hang himself. He had been alive during an inspection by wardens at the Nitzan Detention Centre in central Israel about 10 minutes earlier.
The 62-year-old comedian, who was also a charismatic, often zany, chat-show host, had been charged with multiple counts of conspiracy and aggravated assault against a series of television executives. He initially denied the charges, which followed attacks on two prominent Channel Two figures Avi Nir and Shira Margalit, but police said he later confessed to recruiting men to carry out the attacks.
His long and at times controversial career reached a peak in the Nineties, but had been on a decline, which he himself partly attributed to the growth of reality TV, and he had publicly and bitterly complained of being snubbed by those commissioning light entertainment shows.
He survived a serious setback in 1981 when, already nationally famous, he made a celebrity appearance at a Labour Party rally and said he was happy the crowd contained none of the right-wing Likud's chachchaim or riff-raff – a term widely assumed to refer to Jews of north African descent.
Despite being banned from Israel's public broadcasting channel for three years he went on to become Israel's most popular entertainer, hosting a series of variety shows. At one point in the mid-Nineties he was watched in a still unmatched record of 51 per cent of Israeli homes, and at the height of the X-files craze persuaded hundreds of thousands of viewers to switch off their lights by promising that aliens would fly over the country. The Italian porn star La Cicciolina also appeared as a guest on one of his shows, topless and holding a snake.
Even at the height of his fame, he attacked a prominent television critic, breaking his glasses and declaring: "He doesn't understand what he sees anyway." He was also arraigned for kissing a female security guard against her will, and then demonstrated the alleged offence on a woman reporter covering the scandal. Both harassment cases were dropped for lack of evidence.
The entertainer's lawyer, Zion Amir, told Israel Radio that he had warned police and prison authorities of what he said was his client's fragile mental state. "I told them his life was in danger. I begged the judges from day one. They thought he would flee the country, that he would hurt more people. I tried to fight and keep him alive." He went on: "I thought it was the daily hardships he was experiencing [which led him to take his life]. I've heard him say that many times before." Mr Amir also blamed "a massive and horrible media campaign" after his arrest.
In an interview with Army Radio before his arrest, Topaz said, "There are two of me... a good person who just wants to do good, and if I return to TV I will try my best to be good... But there is also a bad person lurking inside."
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