By Jake Coyle | Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — Richard Belzer, the longtime stand-up comedian who became one of TV’s most indelible detectives as John Munch in “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “Law & Order: SVU,” has passed away. He turned 78.
Belzer died Sunday at his home in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, in the south of France, his longtime friend Bill Scheft said. Scheft, a writer who had worked on a documentary about Belzer, said there was no known cause of death, but that Belzer was dealing with circulatory and respiratory problems. The actor Henry Winkler, Belzer’s cousin, tweeted, “Rest in peace Richard.”
For more than two decades and in 10 series – even including appearances on “30 Rock” and “Arrested Development” – Belzer played the wisecracking, caustic homicide detective prone to conspiracy theories. Belzer first played Munch in a 1993 episode of ‘Homicide’ and last played him in 2016’s ‘Law & Order: SVU’.
Belzer never auditioned for the part. After hearing him on “The Howard Stern Show,” executive producer Barry Levinson brought in the comedian to read the part.
“I would never become a detective. But if I were, I’d be like this,” Belzer once said. “They write to all my paranoia and anti-establishment dissent and conspiracy theories. So it’s been a lot of fun for me. Really a dream.”
From that unlikely beginning, Belzer’s Munch would go on to become one of television’s longest-running characters, a sunglasses-wearing presence on the small screen for more than two decades. In 2008, Belzer published the novel “I Am Not a Cop!” with Michael Ian Black. He also helped author several books on conspiracy theories, covering such things as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
“He made me laugh a billion times,” his old friend and fellow stand-up Richard Lewis said on Twitter on Sunday.
Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Belzer was drawn to comedy, he said, during an abusive childhood in which his mother would beat him and his older brother, Len. He would make impressions of his childhood idol, Jerry Lewis. “My kitchen was the toughest room I’ve ever worked in,” Belzer told People magazine in 1993.
After being expelled from Dean Junior College in Massachusetts, Belzer embarked on a life of stand-up in New York in 1972. At Catch a Rising Star, Belzer became a regular performer and an emcee. He made his big screen debut in Ken Shapiro’s 1974 film ‘The Groove Tube’, a TV satire starring Chevy Chase, a film that grew out of the Channel One comedy group of which Belzer was a part.
Before “Saturday Night Live” changed the New York comedy scene, Belzer performed with John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray and others on the National Lampoon Radio Hour. In 1975, he became the warm-up strip for the newly launched ‘SNL’. While many cast members rose to fame quickly, Belzer’s roles were mostly minor cameos. He later said that “SNL” creator Lorne Michaels reneged on his promise to work him on the show.
But Belzer became one of the best stand-ups of the time. He was best known for his caustic, cynical attitude and his witty, sometimes belligerent banter with the audience. As one of the most influential comedians of the 1970s, Belzer was a master of crowdwork.
“My style grew out of hanging out with drunk people at twelve, one, two in the morning and trying to be like an alchemist and take charge of their lives and make golden jokes out of it,” Belzer told Terry Gross in “Fresh Air.”
Belzer would later write an irreverent self-help book titled “How to Be a Stand-Up Comic” with advice on things like how to apologize to Frank Sinatra if you made fun of him on stage or how to deal with hecklers. One of his favorite lines was, “I have a microphone. You have a beer. God has a plan and you are not part of it.”
Belzer often played a stand-up comic in movies, including 1983’s “Fame” and 1983’s “Scarface.” He had small parts here and there, including 1982’s “Night Shift” and “Fletch Lives” in 1989. But Munch would change Belzer’s career.
As Tom Fontana, co-creator of “Homicide,” said, “Munch was the spice in these dishes,” Belzer told the AV Club. “Munch was based on a real life man in Baltimore who was, in a way, a star detective. He came across gruesome murder scenes, started doing one-liners because someone had to break the tension. Munch therefore fulfilled a very important function. Not only was he a dissident who said what was on his mind, he also had the gallows humor needed in a murder squad.”
When “Homicide” wrapped in early 1999, Munch called Dick Wolf to see if the character could join another NBC series, “Law & Order,” in which Munch had appeared in a few previous episodes. Wolf already had leads for “Law & Order,” but he wanted Belzer to star in a spin-off. That fall, “Law & Order: SVU” premiered, starring Belzer alongside Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni in a storyline written as if Munch had transferred from Baltimore to New York.
“Richard Belzer’s Detective John Munch is one of television’s iconic characters,” Wolf said in a statement.
“I first worked with Richard on the ‘Law & Order’/’Homicide’ crossover and loved the character so much,” said Wolf. “I wanted to make him one of the original characters on ‘SVU’. The rest is history. Richard brought humor and joy to all of our lives, was the consummate professional and we will all miss him dearly.”
Belzer is survived by his third wife, the actress Harlee McBride, whom he married in 1985. For the past 20 years, they’ve lived mostly in France, in houses he bought in part with the proceeds from a lawsuit with Hulk Hogan. In 1985, Belzer had Hogan guest on his cable TV talk show “Hot Properties” to perform a chin lock on him. Belzer passed out, hit his head and sued Hogan for $5 million. They settled out of court.