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Actor and Comedian Richard Belzer Dead At 78

Comedian and actor Richard Belzer, best known for his long-running stint as the sarcastic Det. John Munch on Homicide: Life On The Street, and Law & Order: SVU has died.

via THR:

Belzer died early Sunday at his home in Bozouls in southwest France, writer Bill Scheft, a longtime friend of the actor, told The Hollywood Reporter. “He had lots of health issues, and his last words were, ‘Fuck you, motherfucker,'” Scheft said.

Belzer made his film debut in the hilarious The Groove Tube (1974), warmed up audiences in the early days of Saturday Night Live and famously was put to sleep by Hulk Hogan.

Munch made his first appearance in 1993 on the first episode of Homicide and his last in 2016 on Law & Order: SVU. In between those two NBC dramas, Belzer played the detective on eight other series, and his hold on the character lasted longer than James Arness’ on Gunsmoke and Kelsey Grammer’s on Cheers and Frasier.

Certainly one of the most memorable cops in TV history, Munch — based on a real-life Baltimore detective — was a highly intelligent, doggedly diligent investigator who believed in conspiracy theories, distrusted the system and pursued justice through a jaded eye. He’d often resort to dry, acerbic wisecracks to make his point: “I’m a homicide detective. The only time I wonder why is when they tell me the truth,” went a typical Munch retort.

In a 2016 interview for the website The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, Homicide executive producer Barry Levinson recalled listening to Belzer on The Howard Stern Show and liking him for Munch. “We were looking at some other actors, and when I heard him, I said, ‘Why don’t we find out about Richard Belzer?” Levinson said. “I like the rhythm of the way he talks. And that’s how that happened.”

The pencil-thin Belzer portrayed Munch on all seven seasons of the NBC series. When it ended in 1999, the actor wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye to the role. He had appeared as Munch on NBC’s Law & Order three times from 1996-99 and thought he might be a good fit on that show.

“When Homicide was canceled, I was in France with my wife and she said, ‘Let’s open a bottle of champagne and toast: You did this character for seven years,'” Belzer recounted in the 2009 book Law & Order: Special Victims Unit Unofficial Companion. “And then I remembered that Benjamin Bratt was leaving L&O, and so I called my manager and said, ‘Call Dick Wolf — maybe Munch can become [Det. Lennie] Briscoe’s partner’ —- because we had teamed for the crossover. So he called and Dick said, ‘What a great idea, but I’ve already cast Jesse Martin to be the new guy [opposite Jerry Orbach].'”

Wolf, however, was in the process of developing a Law & Order spinoff to focus on the NYPD’s Special Victims Unit, the division that investigates sexually based crimes. He wanted Munch for that.

When Law & Order: SVU debuted in September 1999, Munch had relocated from Baltimore to New York to join forces with Det. Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Det. Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni). Capt. Donald Cragen (Dann Florek) was brought over from Law & Order to head the squad.

Munch’s sardonic demeanor turned out to be perfect for the grim tone of the series, and Belzer stayed 14 seasons. The character announced his retirement from the NYPD in 2014, but Munch returned a couple years later for the 17th-season episode “Fashionable Crimes.”

Belzer as Munch showed up on a 1997 episode of The X-Files that appropriately dealt with the origins of the show’s resident conspiracists — the Lone Gunmen. He also popped up on The Beat, Law & Order: Trial by Jury and The Wire and played the cop for laughs on Arrested Development, 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. A puppet who looked like Munch even showed up on Sesame Street.

“I never asked anyone to be on their show. So it’s doubly flattering to me to see me depicted in a script and that I’m so recognizable and lovable as the sarcastic detective and smart-ass,” Belzer said in a 2008 interview. “Much to my delight, because he is a great character for me to play, it’s fun for me. So I’m not upset about being typecast at all.”

Richard Jay Belzer was born on Aug. 4, 1944, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. His penchant for comedy grew out of an abusive childhood and a mother who beat him and his older brother, Len.

“She always had some rationale for hitting us,” he told People magazine in 1993. “My kitchen was the toughest room I ever worked. I had to make my mom laugh or I’d get my ass kicked.”

Belzer’s self-described “uncontrollable wit” in the classroom often landed him in trouble, and his stay at Massachusetts’ Dean Junior College ended abruptly when he was expelled for organizing on-campus protests. A series of odd jobs followed, including census taker, dock worker and jewelry salesman. For a time, he pursued a career as a journalist and worked for The Bridgeport Post newspaper.

A tragedy made Belzer reassess his priorities. Three years after his mom, Frances, died of breast cancer, his father, Charles, a salesman, distraught over his wife’s death, attempted suicide in 1967. Belzer found him and saved his life, but a year later, his dad succeeded. (Belzer’s brother, who produced the radio program The Comedy Hour, would also die by suicide, leaping from the roof of his Upper West Side apartment building in 2014 after his wife, Sesame Street director Emily Squires, had died.)

His father’s death hit Belzer hard, he said, and he decided it was time to take a risk and try comedy.

On a lark, Belzer answered an ad in The Village Voice to audition for Channel One, an East Village comedy troupe led by Ken Shapiro and Lane Sarasohn. He performed the bits he had honed growing up — including imitations of Marlon Brando, Jerry Lewis and, at his bar mitzvah, Bob Dylan — and got the gig in 1971.

Calling its show Groove Tube, Channel One specialized in skits satirizing TV conventions like clowns on kids shows and anchormen. “Go and see Groove Tube,” Clive Barnes had written in a 1969 review for The New York Times. “It is a whole lot better than staying home and watching television.”

Channel One heightened its mock television world by simultaneously broadcasting the skits on three TV monitors in the theater. Shapiro and Sarasohn also videotaped the performances and compiled them into a program to play at local colleges.

The response was strong enough to parlay the idea into a film deal, which became the R-rated, sketch-filled The Groove Tube. Belzer portrayed a lowlife drug dealer in a parody of police dramas, an American president heckling a foreign dignitary and a blackface prostitute in drag. (The movie was the first for Chevy Chase as well.).

“We were very high — when we wrote it, when we shot it, when we premiered it and when we realized we’d made a movie,” Belzer said in a 2010 interview with The A.V. Club. “It was truly underground in the sense that before it was a movie, we had a little theater and we showed Groove Tube on three monitors in a 90-seat theater. So for people to pay to see television, before cable, it was pretty innovative.”

Belzer’s success with Channel One led to stand-up gigs at such New York clubs as Catch a Rising Star, the Improv and Pips. He performed on the National Lampoon Radio Hour alongside Chase, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis. And when Lorne Michaels launched Saturday Night Live in 1975, he tapped Belzer to be the warm-up comedian for the audience. (Belzer said The Groove Tube was Michael’s inspiration for SNL.)

“It was thrilling in those days to be a part of that because — regardless of what anyone said — a lot of people didn’t know how that was going to be accepted,” he told NPR in 1989. “This was like giving the kids the key to the store — to have all of these ‘anti-establishment’ people have a TV show on a network. So they asked me to do some sketches and do the warm-ups. I just kind of did what I did in nightclubs. I talked to the audience. I did some of my material, but I tried to improvise and ad-lib as much as I could. And it was fascinating doing that in a television studio and not in a nightclub.”

Belzer hosted the short-lived Lifetime talk show Hot Properties, where his guests in March 1985 included Hogan and Mr. T, on hand to promote the inaugural WrestleMania. The 6-foot-8, 300-pound Hogan put the 6-foot-1, 150-pound Belzer in a front chinlock, knocking him unconscious and then releasing him to the floor, where the limp comedian banged his head, drawing blood.

“He came very close to killing me,” Belzer told Roy Firestone in 1990. “I was told by a sports medicine expert that if I had fallen a few inches either way I could have been crippled for life, I could have been dead.” He sued Hogan, Mr. T, Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Federation for $5 million and received a reported $400,0000 in a 1990 settlement, which he said he used for a down payment on his house in France.

Meanwhile, frustration was growing as Belzer watched contemporaries such as Chase, Robin Williams and Steve Martin become rich doing movies. He admitted during his People interview that he agreed to appear on Everything Goes, a salacious cable game show, for the sole reason of paying for a Hawaiian family vacation.

“Three contestants come out, and the celebrity panel takes a good look at them,” said Belzer, describing the format. “Then female contestants had to stick their naked breasts through a cutout or men their bare buttocks, and the panel guessed which person it was. At the end, during the credits, the camera zooms in on me, and I mouth the words, ‘I did it for the money.’ It’s the only time I sold out in my life.”

And then John Munch changed everything.

Belzer also played an MC — basically himself — in Fame (1980) and Scarface (1983) and had bit parts in Author! Author! (1982), Night Shift (1982), Flicks (1983), America (1986), Fletch Lives (1989), The Big Picture (1989), The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), Get on the Bus (1996) and The Man in the Moon (1999).

He also had a recurring role on the 1990s series The Flash, played Inspector Henderson on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and did cameos in music videos for Pat Benatar and Mike + the Mechanics.

Then there was Belzer the author; he published books on a range of subjects, including 1988’s How to Be a Stand-Up Comic; 2000’s UFOs, JFK, and Elvis: Conspiracies You Don’t Have to Be Crazy to Believe; and 2008’s I Am Not a Cop!: A Novel, which centered on an actor named Richard Belzer who plays a TV cop named Munch and investigates a murder.

Survivors include his third wife, actress Harlee McBride (they married in 1985, and she played medical examiner Alyssa Dyer on Homicide), and stepdaughters Jessica and Bree.

I loved Richard Belzer on L&O: SVU. RIP!!!

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