Richard Belzer: Comedian Who Became a TV Actor

From a Washington Post obit by Meryl Kornfield headlined “Richard Belzer, comedian turned ‘Law and Order’ stalwart, dies at 78”:

Actor Richard Belzer, who parlayed his stand-up comedy chops into a career playing the iconic role of police detective John Munch in NBC’s “Homicide: Life on the Street” and the “Law & Order” franchise, died Sunday.

Mr. Belzer was at his winter home in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, France, with his wife, former actress Harlee McBride, and stepchildren when he died, his longtime friend Bill Scheft said. Scheft, who was making a documentary about Mr. Belzer, said he had had circulatory and respiratory health issues for the last few years of his life.

News of his death has led to an outpouring of tributes from friends and colleagues in television and comedy who remember Mr. Belzer for his role as the beloved Munch, as well as a storied career as a stand-up comic. Comedian Billy Crystal called him “a genius at handling a crowd.” Actress Marlee Matlin described him as “one of the most kindest and welcoming actors” when she was a guest on “SVU.” Actor Henry Winkler wrote “Rest in peace Richard.” Several shared his most famous moments, including the time he was knocked out by wrestler Hulk Hogan.

Scheft said Mr. Belzer drew less attention for his comedic roles than he did as a detective, but that his stand-up had inspired other comedians for decades.

“He is known throughout the world as this character, Munch, who was the longest-running character in television when he retired,” Scheft said. “And yet he is not known before that as one of the most influential stand-up comics in the late ’70s. He was legendary.”

Dick Wolf, the creator of “Law & Order,” said in a tribute post on Instagram that he had first worked with Mr. Belzer on a crossover episode of “Law & Order” and “Homicide” and loved the character of Munch so much that he wanted to make him part of “SVU.”

“The rest is history,” Wolf wrote.

“Richard brought humor and joy into all our lives, was the consummate professional, and we will all miss him very much,” Wolf said.

Mr. Belzer, born in Bridgeport, Conn., struggled with what he called a “bitter childhood.” His abusive mother died when he was 20, and his father killed himself four years later. He took on odd jobs, including a stint as a writer for the Bridgeport Post newspaper.

In 1971, Mr. Belzer decided to try out for a part in an underground theater production advertised in the Village Voice. That role launched his career. He took on other jobs as a stand-up comic, including on “Saturday Night Live” when it was launched in 1975.

In the 1980s, Mr. Belzer hosted a late-night cable talk show, “Hot Properties.” In one of the most notorious moments of the show, Hogan placed Mr. Belzer in a choke hold as part of an on-air bit that went too far. Hogan knocked Mr. Belzer unconscious before tossing his limp body on the ground. He was hospitalized, needed nine stitches and later sued the wrestling superstar. He used the settlement to buy his homes in France, Scheft said.

In 1993, the Baltimore-based cop show “Homicide” aired, making Munch a household name.

For the next 20 years, Munch appeared in at least 10 TV series across five channels, typically donning tinted wire-frames and a cynical attitude. He was known for his interest in conspiracy theories — a trait shared by Mr. Belzer, who had written several books on subjects including UFOs and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

“Homicide cops are fascinating to me,” he told The Post in 1994. “Because of the nature of the victim and the perpetrator, they really find out a lot. These cops could sit and talk to you about horses’ hooves or ashes or furniture, all kinds of things. It’s that Sherlock Holmesian point of using your intellect and not having to resort to your gun. A lot of guys have probably never drawn their gun, and they are very prideful of that. These guys are the chess players.”

Meryl Kornfield is a staff writer on the general assignment desk of The Washington Post.

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