Meni Peer, the face of Israeli talk shows and the frontman for countless gala events died yesterday morning just three days short of his 68th birthday. He had been suffering from liver cancer from some time but announced his condition to the public only a few months ago.
Peer was the definitive Israeli TV entertainment show host. He was blessed with the gift of gab and was never at a loss for words or for some quick-fire witticism. But he never fell into the glib trap. If a live TV interview took an unexpected detour into an area that was clearly sensitive for the guest Peer would not generally back off the subject but he would treat the matter, and the interviewee, with due sensitivity.
That was the measure of the man.
Not so long ago, as a guest on Yigal Ravid’s Channel 1 show Kach Haya (The Way It Was), Peer said that he was never into dirt digging, or getting some spectacular scoop, but that it was human interest stories that fired him. He talked about how, before the start of Channel 2 and later other commercial TV stations, the only competition for the viewers’ affections was between two Channel 1 shows. But that all changed in November 1993 when Channel 2 got in on the act, although Peer remained unfazed by the potentially damaging rivalry.
He recalled getting requests from all sorts of up-and-coming artists and wannabe celebrities who said they’d love to be on his talk show, but also wanted to set all sorts of preconditions on the questions he could ask them, or the songs they’d sing on the show. When Peer refused to accede to their requests they threatened to appear on the Channel 2 talk show presented by Peer’s childhood pal Dudu Topaz.
“That’s great,” said Peer at the time. “Go to Dudu. Then you’ll be famous and you’ll come to me. I always said we weren’t cut out for celebrities, we were interested in people’s stories.”
Peer did that with great aplomb, and grace, for over 40 years.
The sincerity and empathy Peer exuded, in a profession in which many practitioners appear to be more absorbed in projecting the right image – often at the cost of their interviewees’ ability to tell their own story – often paid dividends.
In an early 1987 TV interview, iconic singer Zohar Argov, a known drug addict, rolled up one of his shirt sleeves and graphically explained to Peer how, after smoking crack, he’d dig into his forearm with a needle to extricate what he imagined to be a worm. It was the most startling and dramatic of television moments, particularly at a time when Israeli society was far more conservative and naïve than today, and one which Peer handled with typical delicacy. 10 months later Argov killed himself in a prison cell.
Peer was born Menachem Bauer, in Kibbutz Yitzchak, near Netanya.
He took a degree in art history and philosophy at Tel Aviv University, and subsequently studied at the Nissan Nativ Acting Studio. He appeared in numerous productions at mainstream venues such as Ohel Theater, Beersheba Theater and Beit Lesson, and in various fringe stage ventures. He also accrued a decent filmography, with roles in such blockbuster Israeli movies as the 1972 slapstick comedy Salomoniko, the 1971 film about a junior crime-buster band Hasamba, and 2005 drama Delusions.
There were numerous strings to Peer’s professional bow. He also wrote a regular column for the Lehiton entertainment weekly, shared his experience and know-how with students at the Ariel College’s School of Media Studies and presented such successful television shows as Shaah Tova, From Meni and Siba LeMesiba – all mandatory Friday evening viewing throughout the Eighties. He also chaired various popular radio programs, and was an in-demand conference host, auctioneer, college and university graduation ceremony MC and beauty-queen content presenter.
All these roles were handled with charm and silky skill. Peer also had a natural affinity with kids, and got into TV from the very earliest days of television in this country, in 1969, when he presented Israeli TV’s first children’s show, The Big Recess.
Peer’s writing oeuvre also took in one of his greatest loves – wine.
In 2010 he was appointed editor of the Gourmet and Wine magazine, and he often shared his extensive knowledge of wine and various other quality alcoholic beverages with others. I was the happy recipient of some of the latter when I went to Peer’s north Tel Aviv apartment several years ago to interview him prior to his start on a new TV show.
He was the most gracious of hosts and happily poured me generous portions of some fine Scotch whisky, which I sipped while he told his story. Needless to say, I was not too focused by the end of the interview, but thankfully my tape recorder stayed sober.
For all Peer’s preference for human interest stories over providing celebrities with an ego-preening platform, the list of the rich and famous who passed through his studio set reads like a who’s who of the local entertainment industry.
Artists of all genres, styles and ethnic baggage happily answered his questions, from veteran singer- songwriter Chava Alberstein to Mediterranean crooner Eyal Golan, and from sultry soft-rock diva Rita to in-your-face rocker Aviv Geffen.
Peer also enjoyed a short-brief jaunt into the pop singing arena, as vocalist on the 1971 single “Besiman Aliyah” (Looking Up) with the Mayim Acharonim band.
Above all, Peer was always a soft speaker and ready with a smile and a quick joke. When, recently, an interviewee noted that Peer might not manage any more interviews, he quipped characteristically: “I might get run over today, or my condition might suddenly deteriorate and I’ll die, and this will be my last interview, what am I supposed to do about it? Should I start talking Aramaic, so I can converse with the angels?”