They called Dudu Topaz "the ratings king" of Israel. Handsome and charismatic, folksy and zany, he drew audiences to gimmicky variety shows, game shows, talk shows, children's shows and satires that made him one of the country's most popular and provocative television hosts for nearly three decades.
He once regaled a couple expecting triplets with a year's supply of diapers and baby formula. He hosted the Italian porn star Cicciolina, who appeared topless and handling a snake. At the height of his fame, during the "X-Files" craze of the 1990s, he persuaded hundreds of thousands of viewers to switch off their lights one evening, promising that aliens would fly over Israel.
All that was before "American Idol," "Dancing With the Stars" and other unscripted shows muscled into Israel's prime-time slots a few years ago, eclipsing his career.
Now the 62-year-old has-been is back at the center of national attention, jailed on suspicion of ordering the brutal beatings of two television executives who had rebuffed his ideas for new shows, and of the agent who had abandoned his comeback bid.
His arrest Sunday transfixed Israelis. Besides highlighting the country's shifting cultural tastes, the news accounts offered a tragic portrait of celebrity: "A tempestuous telenovela," tabloid reporter Bruria Avidan wrote, about "a bitter and angry person . . . a junkie left with a craving hunger for his screen fix" after he was taken off the air.
The scandal upstaged Palestinian violence in the West Bank and Israel's conflict with the Obama administration over Jewish settlements, pushing them off the front pages. The mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot devoted its first 15 pages Monday to articles about Topaz and photos of him in police custody.
Asked about the allegations Sunday, the entertainer shouted to a crowd of reporters, "Don't make me laugh!" and "Let them prove it!" But a police official said Topaz cracked under interrogation Tuesday and confessed to the crimes.
Topaz is accused of hiring three former security guards involved in the beatings over the last seven months of Shira Margalit, a vice president at Israel's Channel 2 TV; Avi Nir, a Channel 2 director; and talent agent Boaz Ben-Zion in Tel Aviv. Margalit, the most recent victim, was hospitalized a few days last month with a broken nose and fractured bones in her face.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the four suspects, all in custody, were identified through telephone wiretaps, witness testimony and surveillance video.
At least two other media executives were on the entertainer's hit list, police said: a newspaper editor who had turned down his offer to write a regular column and a Channel 2 producer who once worked with Topaz and now produces the unscripted show "Big Brother."
Days before Topaz's arrest, Israeli news media were speculating about the entertainer's possible involvement in the three assaults. Channel 2 had canceled his variety show, "Everything Moves With Dudu Topaz," after the 2005-06 season and recently turned down his ideas for new programs.
Asked last week about the rebuff, Topaz told Army Radio: "They are making a mistake with all their reality shows, instead of having some talk shows too. People on the street wonder why I disappeared, so I feel [the TV executives] are not close to the people and don't know what needs to be on TV."
Topaz, who was born David Goldenberg and studied acting in London, cultivated a man-of-the-people persona that gave him wide appeal, said Gadi Taub, a former TV host and cultural critic. To some, he resembled the character played by Jerry Lewis in the 1983 movie "The King of Comedy," funny and charming onstage but breathtakingly cruel, arrogant and vindictive off.
He once attacked a TV critic for a scathing review and broke his glasses, famously declaring, "He doesn't understand what he sees anyway." He was accused of kissing a female studio security guard against her will and of trying to demonstrate the alleged offense on a female reporter covering the scandal. Both sexual harassment cases were closed for lack of evidence.
Meni Peer, a longtime colleague, said she could not imagine that a man notorious for such in-your-face chutzpah would, as he is accused of doing, send others to exact revenge on television bosses instead of confronting them himself.
But vengeance was apparently on his mind, as he suggested three months ago in an unusually candid interview with Army Radio, which the station replayed Monday.
"There are two of me," he said, "a good person who just wants to do good, and if I return to TV I will try my best to be good to the audience. But there is also a bad person lurking inside . . . a vindictive and unforgiving person whom I am trying to suppress."