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Richard Belzer, Extraordinarily Smart-Ass as a Comic and a TV Cop, Dies at 78

The stand-up legend and 'Groove Tube' actor played Det. John Munch on 'Homicide: Life on the Street,' 'Law and Order: SVU' and eight other shows.

Richard Belzer

Richard Belzer, the beloved comedian who began as an edgy stand-up performer before finding further fame as the cynical but stalwart detective John Munch on Homicide: Life on the Street and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, has died. He was 78. 

Belzer died early Sunday at his home in Bozouls in southwest France, writer Bill Scheft, a longtime friend of the actor, told The Hollywood Reporter. “He had lots of health issues, and his last words were, ‘Fuck you, motherfucker,'” Scheft said.

Belzer made his film debut in the hilarious The Groove Tube (1974), warmed up audiences in the early days of Saturday Night Live and famously was put to sleep by Hulk Hogan.

Munch made his first appearance in 1993 on the first episode of Homicide and his last in 2016 on Law & Order: SVU. In between those two NBC dramasBelzer played the detective on eight other series, and his hold on the character lasted longer than James Arness’ on Gunsmoke and Kelsey Grammer’s on Cheers and Frasier.

Certainly one of the most memorable cops in TV history, Munch — based on a real-life Baltimore detective — was a highly intelligent, doggedly diligent investigator who believed in conspiracy theories, distrusted the system and pursued justice through a jaded eye. He’d often resort to dry, acerbic wisecracks to make his point: “I’m a homicide detective. The only time I wonder why is when they tell me the truth,” went a typical Munch retort.

In a 2016 interview for the website The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, Homicide executive producer Barry Levinson recalled listening to Belzer on The Howard Stern Show and liking him for Munch. “We were looking at some other actors, and when I heard him, I said, ‘Why don’t we find out about Richard Belzer?” Levinson said. “I like the rhythm of the way he talks. And that’s how that happened.”

The pencil-thin Belzer portrayed Munch on all seven seasons of the NBC series. When it ended in 1999, the actor wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye to the role. He had appeared as Munch on NBC’s Law & Order three times from 1996-99 and thought he might be a good fit on that show. 

“When Homicide was canceled, I was in France with my wife and she said, ‘Let’s open a bottle of champagne and toast: You did this character for seven years,'” Belzer recounted in the 2009 book Law & Order: Special Victims Unit Unofficial Companion. “And then I remembered that Benjamin Bratt was leaving L&O, and so I called my manager and said, ‘Call Dick Wolf — maybe Munch can become [Det. Lennie] Briscoe’s partner’ — because we had teamed for the crossover. So he called and Dick said, ‘What a great idea, but I’ve already cast Jesse Martin to be the new guy [opposite Jerry Orbach].'”

Wolf, however, was in the process of developing a Law & Order spinoff to focus on the NYPD’s Special Victims Unit, the division that investigates sexually based crimes. He wanted Munch for that.

When Law & Order: SVU debuted in September 1999, Munch had relocated from Baltimore to New York to join forces with Det. Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Det. Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni). Capt. Donald Cragen (Dann Florek) was brought over from Law & Order to head the squad. 

Munch’s sardonic demeanor turned out to be perfect for the grim tone of the series, and Belzer stayed 14 seasons. The character announced his retirement from the NYPD in 2014, but Munch returned a couple years later for the 17th-season episode “Fashionable Crimes.”

Belzer as Munch showed up on a 1997 episode of The X-Files that appropriately dealt with the origins of the show’s resident conspiracists — the Lone Gunmen. He also popped up on The BeatLaw & Order: Trial by Jury and The Wire and played the cop for laughs on Arrested Development30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. A puppet who looked like Munch even showed up on Sesame Street.

“I never asked anyone to be on their show. So it’s doubly flattering to me to see me depicted in a script and that I’m so recognizable and lovable as the sarcastic detective and smart-ass,” Belzer said in a 2008 interview. “Much to my delight, because he is a great character for me to play, it’s fun for me. So I’m not upset about being typecast at all.”

Richard Jay Belzer was born on Aug. 4, 1944, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. His penchant for comedy grew out of an abusive childhood and a mother who beat him and his older brother, Len.

“She always had some rationale for hitting us,” he told People magazine in 1993. “My kitchen was the toughest room I ever worked. I had to make my mom laugh or I’d get my ass kicked.” 

Belzer’s self-described “uncontrollable wit” in the classroom often landed him in trouble, and his stay at Massachusetts’ Dean Junior College ended abruptly when he was expelled for organizing on-campus protests. A series of odd jobs followed, including census taker, dock worker and jewelry salesman. For a time, he pursued a career as a journalist and worked for The Bridgeport Post newspaper. 

A tragedy made Belzer reassess his priorities. Three years after his mom, Frances, died of breast cancer, his father, Charles, a salesman, distraught over his wife’s death, attempted suicide in 1967. Belzer found him and saved his life, but a year later, his dad succeeded. (Belzer’s brother, who produced the radio program The Comedy Hour, would also die by suicide, leaping from the roof of his Upper West Side apartment building in 2014 after his wife, Sesame Street director Emily Squires, had died.)

His father’s death hit Belzer hard, he said, and he decided it was time to take a risk and try comedy.

On a lark, Belzer answered an ad in The Village Voice to audition for Channel One, an East Village comedy troupe led by Ken Shapiro and Lane Sarasohn. He performed the bits he had honed growing up — including imitations of Marlon Brando, Jerry Lewis and, at his bar mitzvah, Bob Dylan — and got the gig in 1971. 

Reference: The Hollywood Reporter: 

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