Richard Belzer, Stand-Up Comic and ‘Law & Order: SVU’ Star, Dies at 78

Richard Belzer, who started his career as a stand-up comedian before becoming a household name for his role as Det. John Munch in “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “Law & Order: SVU,” died Sunday in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, France. He was 78.

“Richard Belzer’s Detective John Munch is one of television’s iconic characters,” “Law & Order” and “SVU” creator Dick Wolf said in a statement to Variety. “I first worked with Richard on the ‘Law & Order’/’Homicide’ crossover [episode in 1997] and loved the character so much, I told Tom (Fontana) that I wanted to make him one of the original characters on ‘SVU.’ The rest is history. Richard brought humor and joy into all our lives, was the consummate professional and we will all miss him very much.”

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NBC and Universal Television also paid tribute to the iconoclastic actor who brought the Munch character to other shows affiilated with NBC and the producers of “Homicide: Life on the Street”: Barry Levinson, Tom Fontana and David Simon.

“Anyone who ever had the pleasure of watching Richard Belzer portray Det. John Munch — whether on ‘Homicide’ or ‘Law & Order: SVU’ – over four decades will never forget how much he inhabited that beloved character to make it his own,” NBC and Universal TV stated. “His professionalism, talents and dedication to the craft made him a pillar in the industry, but it was his humor, compassion and loving heart that made him family. Our condolences go out to his loved ones as we join them in mourning his loss, but also in celebrating his memory.”

Belzer’s death was reported through a tribute by actor Henry Winkler — the two were cousins.

Other tributes by comedian Laraine Newman, “SVU” showrunner Warren Leight and “SVU” writer and executive producer Julie Martin also appeared on social media.

Belzer bowed out as a series regular on “SVU” in Oct. 2013, after 230-plus episodes. Belzer’s well-traveled Munch, a detective in the NYPD’s special victims unit, transitioned to a role as an investigator with the District Attorney’s office in the Oct. 16, 2013, episode of “SVU.”

The gangly actor became synonymous with the quirky gumshoe who began as a character created by Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson for NBC’s “Homicide: Life on the Street” in 1993. After “Homicide” wrapped its run at the end of the 1998-99 season, the character immediately segued to “SVU” in its first season. The character had already done guest appearances on “Law & Order” in 1996 and 1997. Over the course of “SVU’s” run, Munch was elevated from detective to sergeant.

In a May 2014 episode of “SVU,” Munch returned to help Amaro (Danny Pino) after he is arrested.

The Munch character has appeared in more TV series than any other fictional character — nine, on five networks, since the character’s debut in 1993. With Munch’s retirement in the detective’s 22nd season on television, the character was on U.S. television longer than “Gunsmoke’s” Marshall Matt Dillon or Frasier Crane (“Cheers” and “Frasier”), each of whom appeared on TV for 20 seasons.

Belzer did guest appearances as Munch on a range of other shows, from comedies “3rd Rock From the Sun,” “Arrested Development” and “30 Rock” to HBO’s “The Wire,” Fox’s “The X-Files” and UPN’s “The Beat.”

A particularly memorable episode of “SVU” involved Munch dealing with his homeless, mentally ill uncle, portrayed by Jerry Lewis, who takes matters into his own hands while working on a case involving a mother and her 10-year-old daughter being found brutally murdered in their apartment.

In the 2000 episode “Legacy,” about an abused 7-year-old named Emily McKenna, Munch seems especially affected by the case and tells Mariska Hargitay’s Det. Olivia Benson that when he was a teenager, a little girl lived across the street from him who was abused by her mother and was later killed by being thrown through a glass window. At the end of the episode, Munch sits by Emily’s side in the hospital reading to her.

While most detectives are cynical, Munch stands out as the most cynical of all the detectives on “SVU” or “Homicide.” He was also a firm believer in conspiracy theories.

On “Homicide” he was originally partnered with Ned Beatty’s Det. Stanley Bolander, who did not hide his contempt for Munch’s eccentricities.

Belzer’s film credits included 1980’s “Fame,” in which he played an M.C.; Arthur Hiller’s “Author! Author!,” with Al Pacino, and Ron Howard’s comedy “Night Shift” (both 1982); “Scarface,”  in which he played the M.C. at the Babylon Club; “Fletch Lives” (1989); “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” in which he played a TV producer; “Mad Dog and Glory,” in which he played an M.C. and comic; Rob Reiner’s “North” and “The Puppet Masters” (both 1994); “A Very Brady Sequel,” in which he played an LAPD detective; Spike Lee’s “Get on the Bus,” in which he appeared with “Homicide” co-star Andre Braugher; 1998’s “Species II,” in which he played the U.S. president; and Milos Forman’s Andy Kaufman biopic “Man on the Moon,” in which he played himself.

Belzer recurred on the first iteration of “The Flash,” on CBS in 1990-91, as TV news commentator Joe Klein. He also recurred on “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” as Inspector Henderson in 1994.

TV shows on which he guested — but not as Munch — included “Moonlighting,” “Miami Vice,” “The Larry Sanders Show” and “Mad About You.”

Richard Jay Belzer was born in Bridgeport, Ct. in 1944. He worked as a reporter for the Bridgeport Post in the late ’60s and had ambitions of becoming an important writer; he attended Dean College (then known as Dean Junior College), in Franklin, Massachusetts, but was expelled.

After moving to New York City in 1972, Belzer began working as a stand-up comic known for biting humor at Pips, the Improv and Catch a Rising Star. He was part of the Channel One comedy group that satirized television and whose work became the basis for the cult movie “The Groove Tube,” in which Belzer made his first screen appearance and starred along with Chevy Chase and the director of the film, Ken Shapiro.

In a 1993 article, People magazine declared that “Belzer has had comedy-club cult status since the ’70s, when he was the best and brightest regular at New York City’s Catch a Rising Star. ‘Being a cult figure,’ he says, ‘is a nice way of saying people loved me, but it didn’t pay the rent.'” The article quoted Paul Shaffer: “‘When I first came to New York in 1974,’ says Shaffer, ‘Gilda (Radner) took me to Catch, and Richard was absolutely hysterical. His friends would go to the basement, where the performers hung out, and with pipes dripping on you, Richard would make you laugh. That was the hippest place to be at that time.'”

In 1975, Lorne Michaels, producer of “Saturday Night Live” and a personal friend, offered Belzer a spot as warm-up comic for the “SNL” studio audience. According to People magazine, “Belzer says Michaels also promised him a spot in the cast but later reneged. Whether Michaels withdrew an offer or whether the two men had a miscommunication is unclear. ‘John [Belushi], Bill Murray and Gilda got on the show and became big stars and millionaires,’ says Belzer. ‘Lorne betrayed me and lied to me — which he denies — but I give you my word he said, ‘I’ll work you into the show.’ (Michaels will not comment.)”

Belzer did make some appearances on “SNL.”

Belzer, like many people in show business, did a lot of drugs in the 1970s, and according to People, one of his drug buddies was John Belushi, “who visited Belzer at his L.A. apartment the night before he died of a drug overdose in March 1982. Richard had already lost one friend by then, Freddie Prinze. Belushi’s death was an even harder hit.” A brush with testicular cancer in 1983 spurred the comic to give up drugs.

“Homicide” co-creator Barry Levinson explained to People why he cast Belzer as the stinging Munch. “‘I heard him on the Howard Stern show, and he wasn’t just telling jokes. He was smart, and he had an attitude,’ says Levinson. ‘I wondered if I could take that and put it into the Munch character. A lot of comics who go into acting kind of do it winking at the camera. But Richard’s in there doing it as an actor.'”

Belzer also worked in radio. He co-hosted the show “Brink & Belzer” on New York City’s 660AM WNBC in the late 1970s; he hosted a morning drive program on WJFK-FM in Washington, D.C., in 1987; after Randi Rhodes exited Air America Radio in 2008, Belzer guest-hosted the afternoon program on the network. He was also a frequent guest on “The Howard Stern Show.”

Belzer’s books included “UFO’s, JFK, and Elvis: Conspiracies You Don’t Have to Be Crazy to Believe,” “How to Be a Stand-Up Comic,” “I Am Not a Cop!,” “I Am Not a Psychic!” and “Dead Wrong: Straight Facts on the Country’s Most Controversial Cover-Ups.”

Belzer also hosted a cable TV talk show called “Hot Properties.” Hulk Hogan guested on the show on March 27, 1985, and Belzer asked the wrestler to demonstrate one of his moves. According to Time magazine, Hogan was “demonstrating a front chin-lock on Belzer, who went limp and fell unconscious to the floor. When he rose, a pool of blood had formed under his head; the comic required eight stitches.”

Belzer sued Hogan for $5 million and settled out of court.

He is survived by his third wife, actress Harlee McBride, who recurred as medical examiner Dr. Alyssa Dyer on “Homicide: Life on the Street” and married Belzer in 1985; and two stepdaughters.

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