"Crazy Eddie" Antar, 47, prepares about 100 special meals a day for Muslim and Jewish prisoners. He has no close friends here, but gets along well with his Croatian bunkmate. He reads novels of intrigue. He prays. He observes Jewish holidays and the Sabbath. He keeps kosher. He cannot be released until 2004.
Far from the Brooklyn streets where he grew up playing stoop-ball and became, by virtue of that manic TV pitch, arguably the best-known electronics discounter in the world; farther still from Paris and Rio and Tel Aviv, where he assumed names like Alexander Stewart and David Jacob Levi Cohen from the time he fled a divorce action and a federal repatriation order in 1990 until his arrest in Israel two years later - here, among Otisville's 1,030 inmates, he is sentenced to celebrity.
He always avoided attention, refusing even to be photographed for his company's annual reports. He did not testify at his trial. A "Darth Vader of capitalism," the federal prosecutor called him.
In recent weeks, however, Antar agreed to be interviewed. Soft-spoken and sad, he said he was innocent and regretted his two-year flight from U.S. authorities. His appeal is now before a U.S. court in Philadelphia.
It was fear not of federal court, he said, but of Family Court that had made him run: He was dodging court papers from his ex. He attributed much of his past behavior to a decade-long struggle with alcohol. "Up to a liter and a half of vodka a day," he said.
"I wasn't what you would call, I guess, a model citizen or a model person," Antar admitted, sipping from a can of Diet Coke in a spartan visitors' room. "I believe there are many things that I did wrong. But it didn't make the other people right, either."
To hear Antar tell it, those other people included his cousin - who testified against him - the judge, the prosecutor, his father, his ex-wife, even his ex-lawyer. Now his family is healing, he said, and last year's death of his teenage daughter, Danielle - on the second day of his trial - somehow empowered him to carry on in her memory.
"I've come to the realization it's time to forgive and to heal and to go forward," he said.
Alternately humble and smug, Antar placed himself in the same paragraph as Hemingway, Sartre and the Beatles. He traced his career from the days when he would accept a customer's shoes as a deposit on a TV or stereo, to the Dallas- style saga in which adultery and greed tore apart a high-profile company and the closely knit Syrian-Jewish clan that ran it.
"If God gave me a wish," Antar said, "if I was out, I want to sit on the stoop. I want to watch my grandchildren, God willing, play stoop-ball . . . I don't want to conquer the world anymore."
Who can forget the ads?
"I remember this hyperactive guy practically jumping through the screen with wild gesticulations and a shrill, poorly modulated voice," says columnist Bob Garfield of Advertising Age magazine. "In their market, they were absolutely one of the most memorable advertising campaigns ever crafted. However, I hasten to add that being hit upside the head with a tire iron is also memorable."
Saturday Night Live's Joe Piscopo regularly spoofed the ads. And, in the 1984 movie Splash, a mermaid played by Daryl Hannah was transfixed by "Crazy Eddie's greatest clearance sale ever!!!" blaring from a TV at Bloomingdale's. For nearly two decades, the commercials bombarded every home within cable distance of New York, Boston and Philadelphia.
The ads became part of the popular culture - yet the public never knew the man behind the pitchman. The annoying announcer in the sky-blue turtleneck and navy blazer was actually Jerry Carroll, a former New York disc jockey. Often, when Antar walked down the street with Carroll, people would ignore him and beg Carroll for an autograph.
Here at Otisville, Antar signs autographs for inmates and nods when they point him out to visitors.
"I would like for my friends, my family, to regard me as a good friend - loyal, there when you need him," he said. "I'm not a loud, obnoxious guy. I don't want to be like the person on TV. I was a businessman. I was interested in doing business."
His grandfather came to New York in the early 1900s from Aleppo in a tide of Syrian Jews fleeing the Ottoman Empire. His father traveled the country putting up window displays in shops owned by other Syrian Jews. Eddie dropped out of school after ninth grade.
"I think God looked down one day and He says, 'I'm going to give Eddie Antar a chance. Let's see if he runs with the ball,' " said Antar. "That's the way I look at it."
Antar carried the ball.
From a single Brooklyn store called Sights & Sounds, Crazy Eddie grew to become a 43-store consumer electronics empire with outlets that included Philadelphia and Cherry Hill; a payroll of 3,000 employees; peak annual sales of $400 million.
Lured by radio ads Antar had helped dream up, shoppers flocked to Brooklyn
from three states, plowing past various other Antar relatives in search of the crazy guy, Eddie.
"The customers gave me the name," he recalled, "because I wouldn't let a person walk out of the store without selling. If you didn't have a dollar for a deposit, I'd take your shoes for a deposit."
Some viewers were so startled by the TV ads that they claimed injury.
"We got letters from people: I fell out of bed, I broke my leg, I hate the TV," he said. "When that first commercial hit, forget about it, we were off and running to another planet."
On that planet, Crazy Eddie's annual "Christmas in August" sales attracted such crowds that the cash-register lines stretched outside the 57th Street store in Manhattan - "100 people waiting to pay at any given time," he recalled with excitement.
On that planet, by 1985 - a year before the wildly successful opening of the outlet on Route 38 near Cherry Hill Mall - sales per square foot in Crazy Eddie stores were 10 times higher than in a typical department store.
On that planet, Antar dined at the finest Manhattan restaurants while his chauffeur sat in a double-parked limo, eating from the same menu.
In Crazy Eddie's view, the key to greatness was being in the right place at the right time.
"If you go back to the 1920s," he said, "you had the great writers, you had Sartre, Camus, Hemingway, writing in Paris. And basically, through writing they changed the social consciousness of a generation. So here we were, and the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Stones. Music became the way the message went. Communications now was through the music, it wasn't through the writers."
But troubles lurked beneath the surface.
Antar has admitted, through his former attorney, that he and others skimmed millions in cash receipts for at least three years beginning in 1980. He says the money went into a pension fund for his workers. But the government says he wanted to line his pockets, and didn't stop skimming until he wanted to show profits when the company went public in 1984.
That was also the year his marriage came unglued.
His first wife, the former Deborah Rosen, had borne five daughters, including twins, before the Antars' personal life became a spectacle. On the last day of 1983, Antar's wife, his sister and his sister-in-law found him with another woman outside a Manhattan restaurant. The New Year's Eve incident led swiftly to divorce, and in 1985 Antar married the other woman, Deborah
Ehrlich, daughter of a sewing-machine salesman.
In all that followed, they became known as Debbie One and Debbie Two.
Antar blamed family members for tipping off Debbie One about Debbie Two. ''People live on hope," he said, looking back on his first marriage. ''They don't live on food, they don't live on money. Any fine string of hope that held us together, that night was broken."
At least his behavior was consistent, he said. "I was just being Eddie Antar. To me, it was not wrong. You may say, 'This guy is immoral, or unethical.' . . . I had girlfriends. I was always wild."
Struggling between two Debbies, Antar says, he buckled under the twin pressures of a public company and the public rending of a close family. Alcohol and depression made him so ill that he lost 40 pounds on his 5-foot-7 frame.
"Here I am, supposed to be running and masterminding this fraud," he recalled. "I couldn't run a company in the condition that I was in. I was a total wreck."
In December 1986, he resigned as president of Crazy Eddie, and a month later stepped down as CEO - just before a grand jury began investigating the company.
United States v. Eddie Antar boiled down to this: With falsified inventory figures, the company's stock price was inflated beyond its worth, and thus, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission, three stock sales and a bond sale were fraudulent. Thousands of investors were burned.
Antar says he was not a fugitive when he left the United States in 1990, when no criminal charges were pending against him. He traveled three continents and lived lavishly.
He was fleeing a Brooklyn judge's order to pay $17 million to his ex-wife, and a court order in the SEC's civil case freezing his assets and directing him to return millions. Not until a sealed indictment was issued and he was arrested in June 1992, he says, did he learn of the criminal charges. Thirteen months later, a federal jury in Newark convicted him.
To keep Debbie One from getting at his money, he says, he had moved large amounts to Israeli banks - a fact that helped convict him. "The thread that runs through all of it is my divorce case," he said.
When reports emanated from Israel that he was gravely ill, Antar was, he says, anemic and recovering from an unpublicized suicide attempt: He had slashed his wrist with a razor blade in a jail medical unit.
"The scars are here," he said, extending his arms to show slash marks on his left wrist. "It's part of what happened. It's part of the punishment that I feel, that I've endured."
Shortly afterward came a well-publicized overdose of prescription pills, in the same Israeli jail hospital unit.
"Being dependent, to me, was like being on a respirator," he said of his early days in jail. "And I was terrified from it. I wasn't in control. So for me, it was like, who wanted to live?"
He credits God and Debbie Two with saving his life.
After stonewalling for years, just before his sentencing in April, Antar signed documents enabling the government to obtain $52 million - proceeds from sale of his stock - from banks in Israel, Liechtenstein and Switzerland. The government says another $40 million is stashed away; Antar and his lawyer, John J. Barry of Newark, say no proof of that has been shown.
Meanwhile, brother Mitchell Sam Antar, 38, was convicted on fewer charges and sentenced to four years in prison and $3 million in restitution. Brother Allen Sam Antar, 44, was acquitted - but later was charged, along with their father, in a pending SEC lawsuit.
Eddie Antar contends former U.S. Attorney Michael Chertoff's office fabricated the case against him, and that U.S. District Judge Nicholas H.
Politan was intent on punishing him severely. To Antar, both men's motives were the same.
"I'm Chertoff's feather in his cap," he said. "I'm the judge's biggest case. He'll be able to, for the rest of his life, say that he tried the case of Crazy Eddie. . . . What kind of publicity would they get by prosecuting Joe Shmoe?"
Chertoff, who prosecuted the case last year in U.S. District Court in Newark, said in an interview that Antar "committed one of the major securities frauds of the last decade or so, and what surprised me was how many people I would run into who told me they lost money investing in this guy's stock.
"I have not heard him acknowledge any guilt, in the face of evidence that's just overwhelming . . . that he was the mastermind of this scheme and the principal beneficiary."
Antar claims two of his cousins - one of whom traded prison time for testifying against him - were the true masterminds.
He reserves his greatest bitterness for the way the federal judge responded to the death of Danielle, the third of Antar's five daughters.
Danielle had accompanied him on business trips and stood by him when others in the family did not. When he left the country - "the biggest mistake I ever made" - Danielle never forgave him. He has only begun to forgive himself.
In Israel, he says, he had a premonition that Danielle was ill. He wasn't told of her stomach cancer until his return. From the Union County Jail, he wrote her letters. She died in June 1993, three days after her 18th birthday.
"I wanted to see her, but she was angry with me," he said, his brown eyes welling up. "She didn't want to see me in handcuffs. I lived on the phone in Union County (Jail), I must've been on the phone six hours a day, talking to her mother, talking to the doctors.
"The worst thing," he said, "is that I was not able to help my daughter pass away."
Antar's lawyer at the trial, John Arsenault of Chatham, N.J., told Judge
Politan that his client was in no condition to assist in his own defense. He asked if Antar could attend the funeral and mourn in the Jewish tradition by sitting shiva with his family.
Politan, citing Antar's failure to sign over $60 million frozen in overseas bank accounts, refused.
For once, Antar spoke up in court: "The price of my daughter is $60 million?"
The judge ruled him out of order.
Politan also ruled that Antar, whom he considered a flight risk, was to be handcuffed and in leg irons except when the jury was present. Nor were the handcuffs removed at the funeral - even when Antar picked up a shovel and, in accordance with Jewish tradition, heaped earth upon his daughter's casket.
"If their daughter had just died," Antar said of the judge and prosecutor, "would they be in the next day to try the case?"
That's what they call the cubicles in the dormitory-like room without bars where Antar is one of 167 inmates. Not so long ago, he had homes on Manhattan and Long Island, in Florida, Paris and Oakhurst, N.J. Now he sleeps in the top bunk of the cube he shares with the Croatian, who turns on the light on Friday nights so Antar can read on the Sabbath.
He rises each weekday at 7 a.m. and works in the kitchen, assembling trays of prepared food and fresh vegetables for about 100 Muslim and Jewish inmates who require a special diet. He returns to his cube at 6 or 7 p.m. and reads. He just finished Richard Condon's A Trembling Upon Rome, a Vatican thriller with sex, violence, comedy and tragedy. Now he's into Smiley's People, the John Le Carre spy novel.
At 8 p.m., he takes a nightly tranquilizer. "It takes the edge off," he said, "so I can sleep four or five hours a night instead of two or three."
He phones his wife two or three times a day, and his children almost every day. His wife visits each week.
Last week for the first time, Antar saw his first grandchild, who was born Sept. 8.
"See?" said Antar. "God gives and God takes, and God also gives again."
After their visit, the new grandfather, who doesn't watch TV, retreated to his cube to listen to oldies on the Walkman he purchased from the commissary.
"It's from Otisville," Eddie Sam Antar allowed himself to laugh. "The prices really are insane."