Richard Belzer is primarily known to TV viewers as Detective John Munch. And no wonder. He played the sardonic cop character for 23 seasons on 11 different shows across six different networks.
The two main shows were Homicide: Life on the Street and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, but Belzer also played Munch on the original Law & Order, The X Files, The Beat, Arrested Development, Law & Order: Trial By Jury, The Wire, 30 Rock, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and in a sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live.
Not in the best of health in his later years, Belzer died Sunday at his home in France. He was 78.
Belzer’s portrayal of Munch for 22 consecutive seasons broke the old record of 20 shared by James Arness as Marshal Dillon on Gunsmoke and Kelsey Grammer as Dr. Frasier Crane on Cheers and Frasier. Belzer’s consecutive streak was finally eclipsed this season by his former SVU co-star Mariska Hargitay.
Apparently the idea for Belzer to reprise his Munch character on SVU came at the suggestion of Belzer himself. After Homicide was cancelled, he urged his manger to call L&O franchise creator Dick Wolf and pitch the Baltimore-to-NYC cop character transfer. Wolf accepted the proposal but not before some rights issues between the two shows were settled.
Before he got his big break in television, Belzer already had a reputation as a comedians’ comedian. He started in clubs such as Catch a Rising Star in New York. This led to him becoming the warm up comedian at Saturday Night Live in the original cast days, even sneaking into an occasional on-air skit.
By the time I ran into Belzer at The Improv in LA, he was already well established on stage and TV. He could not have been friendlier on this memorable occasion, introducing himself and happy to chat about comedy.
Belzer was also a well-known conspiracy buff, writing several books on the subject, including one I’ve thumbed through for years at the cottage: UFOs, JFK, and Elvis: Conspiracies You Don’t Have to Be Crazy to Believe (2000). He had no problem with poking fun at his own “conspiracy nut” reputation. After surviving testicular cancer in 1983, Belzer titled a subsequent HBO comedy special “Another Lone Nut.”
He was also a ferocious wit on the roast circuit, aiming stinging barbs at Chevy Chase and others.
In 1985, Belzer was injured after an incident with Wrestlemania star Hulk Hogan. A choke hold the wrestler put on Belzer on a TV show prior to the ring event caused Belzer to slam to the floor and injure his head. The subsequent $400,000 settlement enabled Belzer to buy a house in France.
The comedian christened it, “Chez Hogan.”