The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Richard Belzer, comedian turned ‘Law & Order’ stalwart, dies at 78

As Detective John Munch, he was one of TV’s most ubiquitous characters, appearing on at least 10 different series from 1993 to 2016. Much like Mr. Belzer, the character was cynical and self-deprecating.

Actor and comedian Richard Belzer in Baltimore in 1997. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
8 min

Richard Belzer, an irreverent stand-up comic who became best known for playing one of network television’s most charmingly ubiquitous characters, Detective John Munch, as a series regular on NBC’s “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” died Feb. 19 at his home in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, France. He was 78.

His death was confirmed by his friend Bill Scheft, who is making a documentary about the actor and comedian. Mr. Belzer was suffering from circulatory and respiratory issues, Scheft said.

Mr. Belzer, a wiry and intense performer known for wearing dark tinted glasses beneath his mop of black hair, was a self-described “23-year overnight success,” a comic who seemed poised to reach a national audience long before he started playing the cynical, hard-boiled Munch in 1993. He had been a hit at Catch a Rising Star, one of Manhattan’s liveliest comedy clubs; warmed up the studio audience at “Saturday Night Live,” where he was followed onstage by friends like John Belushi and Gilda Radner; and appeared on “Late Night With David Letterman,” where he would ask the host for a loan or poke fun at the audience.

“Sometimes, I’m stunned at how vicious he can be,” his friend and fellow comedian Robin Williams told Rolling Stone in 1981, when Mr. Belzer was perhaps best known as a sharp-edged insult comic in the mold of Don Rickles. “The way he comes back at people is truly amazing. He’s out there juggling a razor, a hand grenade and a cobra — and being funny at the same time.”

By the time Mr. Belzer was cast in “Homicide,” after filmmaker and executive producer Barry Levinson heard him on Howard Stern’s radio show, he was more likely to mock himself instead of the audience, having softened his comic persona after battling testicular cancer, giving up cocaine, heroin and other drugs, and marrying former model and actress Harlee McBride.

“He was smart, and he had an attitude,” Levinson recalled in a People magazine interview. “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.”

As Munch, Mr. Belzer was a witty, sardonic Baltimore homicide detective, solving murders alongside his partner Stan Bolander (Ned Beatty). The character was loosely inspired by Baltimore police officer Jay Landsman, who was featured in David Simon’s 1991 nonfiction book “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” — the basis for the acclaimed TV series — but was developed further by Mr. Belzer, who brought his own morbid sense of humor to the role. He joked in one episode, “Homicide: Our day begins when yours ends.”

The character was prone to wax philosophical (“If a murder is committed in Baltimore and no homicide detective takes the call, did that homicide actually occur?”) and told jokes about Virginia Woolf and atheism, as well as the indignity of getting shot in the backside (“Wanna kiss it better?”). He also had an interest in conspiracy theories, a trait shared by Mr. Belzer, who wrote books on subjects including UFOs and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Mr. Belzer’s performance proved so popular that the character began making guest appearances on other shows, including “Law & Order” and “The X-Files.” When “Homicide” ended after seven seasons, he moved to the Law & Order franchise full-time, becoming a series regular on “SVU,” as the spinoff is known, from 1999 until 2013. Even while investigating sex-based crimes in New York, where he partnered on-screen with detectives played by Dean Winters, Michelle Hurd and Ice-T, he retained his good humor; when a witness commented on his unusual last name in one episode, he joked that if he ever had children he’d call them his “Munchkins.”

Mr. Belzer made his final appearance as Munch in 2016, guest-starring in an episode of “SVU.” By then he had played the role for 23 seasons on at least 10 separate shows, including in cameos for the sitcoms “30 Rock” and “Arrested Development.”

In part, he said, he was drawn to the character because it gave him a chance to explore the intellectual side of policing, with a focus on interpreting small details rather than firing a gun at bad guys. It helped, too, that the job gave him a steady paycheck — and, he said, the respect of his peers — after years of struggling to make it in show business.

“I can let my breath out and say, ‘Okay, I’m mainstream, I’m not contraband anymore,’” he told The Washington Post in 1994. “I just always had this image of being a New York underground hip counterculture comic. The hell with that. I want to pay the rent.”

The younger of two sons, Richard Jay Belzer was born in Bridgeport, Conn., on Aug. 4, 1944. His mother was physically abusive, and Mr. Belzer said he took up comedy as a way to distract her from violence. “My kitchen was the toughest room I ever worked,” he told People in 1993. “I had to make my mom laugh or I’d get my ass kicked.”

His mother died shortly before he turned 20. His father, a candy and tobacco retailer, killed himself four years later. His brother, Leonard, also died by suicide, in 2014.

Mr. Belzer served briefly in the Army and pursued a writing career in the mid-1960s, working as a reporter for the Bridgeport Post. He said he soon began dealing drugs, and also worked as a jewelry salesman, stevedore, census taker and teacher before spotting a Village Voice advertisement in 1971, announcing auditions for a comedy show in New York.

The show launched his career. He was soon performing on the stage and screen, including in off-Broadway shows by National Lampoon — he replaced Chevy Chase in one production and Harold Ramis in another, according to a history of the group by author Ellin Stein — and starred in the low-budget comedy film “The Groove Tube” (1974) with Chase and Ken Shapiro.

In 1975, he began performing before tapings of the newly launched SNL series. Mr. Belzer said he was promised a spot in the cast by creator Lorne Michaels, but he only appeared in a few sketches over the years, and struggled to let go of the sense that he had been unfairly passed over. “In my early years I was a drug-crazed, cynical guy — resentful and bitter — but I learned something and got wiser. Why be like that?” he told The Post.

Mr. Belzer had small roles in films such as “Fame” (1980), “Author! Author!” (1982) and “Scarface” (1983), often playing stand-up comics. He also hosted a short-lived Cinemax series, “The Richard Belzer Show” (1984), in which he played the emcee of a fictional comedy club. “A lot of people want to see me play toilets for the rest of my life,” he joked in one episode.

The next year, he hosted a talk show on the Lifetime network, “Hot Properties,” and invited professional wrestling star Hulk Hogan to show him some moves onstage. Vowing to make Mr. Belzer “squeal,” Hogan put the TV host in a chokehold. By the time he let go, Mr. Belzer was unconscious. He fell limp to the floor, striking his head and leaving a small pool of blood. He was still regaining consciousness as Hogan brought him to his feet. Then he suddenly pointed to the camera and smiled, saying: “And now — we’ll be right back after this word from you know who!”

Mr. Belzer was taken to the hospital, where he needed nine stitches on his scalp, according to a New York Times report. He later said that when he came to onstage, he was in shock and “had no idea where I was.” He sued Hogan and settled out of court, using the proceeds to put a down payment on a house in France, which he jokingly called “the Hulk Hogan Arms.”

For years he split his time between California and France, where he lived with his wife, McBride, who played a medical examiner on “Homicide.” His earlier marriages to Gail Susan Ross and Dalia Danoch ended in divorce.

In addition to his wife, survivors include two stepdaughters, Bree and Jessica Benton.

After he began appearing on “Homicide,” Mr. Belzer still continued to work as a stand-up, although he no longer needed to tour for six or seven months a year. He loved comedy, he said, but “I tell you, I won’t miss making drunks laugh at 2 in the morning.”