From the king of Israeli TV to apparent jail suicide

The day before his final act, the entertainer once known as Israel's "ratings king" was escorted from his cell to a hastily arranged meeting with his lawyer.

Until a few years ago, Dudu Topaz had a long-running string of gimmicky, wildly popular variety shows on prime-time television. Now he was desperate. On trial for alleged assault and stripped of his freedom, he found prison unbearable, he told the lawyer, and he knew he would probably stay there a long time.

"We had a two-hour meeting," said the lawyer, Zion Amir. "We sat and talked. He told me, 'Zion, I'm not going to make it.' "

Topaz's apparent suicide Thursday ended a tempestuous telenovela about a celebrity's struggle to deal with waning stardom and the consequences of his alleged acts of vengeance.

Israel's emergency medical service said the 62-year-old actor-comedian was found hanging from the cord of an electric kettle in a shower stall next to his cell and pronounced dead after an hour of resuscitation attempts.

"This was a sad story from beginning to end," said actor-producer Zvika Hadar, one of several entertainment figures Topaz publicly blamed for the downward spiral of his career.

Topaz had been in prison since his arrest May 31, accused 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. Hadar and a newspaper editor who turned down Topaz's offer to write a regular column had received threats.

The crimes were scandalous enough. One victim, Shira Margalit, a vice president at Israel's Channel 2 TV, was hospitalized in May with a broken nose and fractured facial bones. The suspected hit men, all under arrest, were former security guards allegedly hired by the celebrity, who was charged with assault and battery, conspiracy to commit a crime, extortion and obstruction of justice.

But what riveted Israelis was Topaz's public meltdown: his rants against TV executives before his arrest, his dramatic confession, his failed suicide attempt during his first hours behind bars.

"He crossed the line," said singer-comedian Tzipi Shavit, a close friend. "But throughout the years he was crazy in the most charming sense of the word. His ending is so horrible and tragic. All I can do for him now is cry."

Although Topaz was little known outside Israel, the collapse of his ratings at home was part of a global trend. Israeli versions of "American Idol," "Dancing With the Stars" and other unscripted shows muscled into prime time, eclipsing his career.

He railed against the industry's decision-makers, saying they misread popular tastes. His outrage was intensely personal.

"You know they should be killed?" he told a television interviewer about his failed comeback attempt, rattling off a list of producers and on-air hosts he said had refused to return his phone calls.

"I want to repeat that sentence," he said. "If there are people who should be executed, it's the people who don't return calls. They're hurting someone's dignity."

At first he laughed off his arrest and proclaimed his innocence. Two days later he confessed, shouting to a television reporter from the back of a police car: "I don't know what got into me! I went crazy in the head!"

Topaz, a diabetic, was put under round-the-clock surveillance in prison after injecting himself with an overdose of insulin.

Two security cameras were installed in his cell. But there was no camera in the shower stall, and a warden on duty at the prison Thursday told Israel Radio that guards had failed to check the entertainer at the required 10-minute intervals.

Israel's prison service said it was conducting a court-supervised investigation of Topaz's death.

"I told the judges his life was in danger," said Amir, the defense lawyer. "They thought that he would flee the country, that he would hurt more people. He should have been held in a psychiatric institution, or a hospital, or bailed out and guarded.

"Over the past two months, he kept repeating: 'I am a good man. I want them to know this.' "


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