Richard Belzer, the actor who played John Munch, one of American television’s most enduring police detectives, has passed away at the age of 78. Belzer’s iconic character, a brainy but hard-boiled detective who wore sunglasses at night, had his own catchphrase and made casual references to Friedrich Nietzsche and novelist Elmore Leonard. Belzer played the character for over 500 hours across ten different shows, including appearances on “Sesame Street” and “30 Rock.” His run as Munch began on “Homicide: Life on the Street” in 1993 and lasted until 2013 when the character was written out of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (SVU), as the show is known. Belzer was often referred to as the actor with the longest run playing the same character on television and the actor who had played the same character on most shows.
Richard Jay Belzer was born on August 4, 1944, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He grew up in a housing project in the city with his mother, Frances (Gurfein) Belzer, a homemaker, and father, Charles, who co-owned a wholesale tobacco and candy distributor. His mother was abusive and frequently hit Belzer and his brother Leonard, also a comedian, for whom their mother’s inappropriate treatment had lifelong consequences. Their father died by suicide before Belzer turned 25.
Belzer served in the army for under a year before receiving a discharge on psychiatric grounds after repeatedly injuring himself. He then worked in a variety of jobs, including truck driver, jewelry salesman, dress salesman, dock worker, census taker, and reporter for The Bridgeport Post. In that job, he dreamed of becoming a serious writer, but instead spent his free time dealing drugs.
In 1971, Belzer answered an ad in The Village Voice for auditions for a sketch show, and soon enough, he found himself performing stand-up. In 1975, he began working as a warm-up comic for the “Saturday Night Live” audience, but his friend Lorne Michaels did not invite him to join the cast. Mr. Belzer accused Mr. Michaels of breaking a promise to him. Absent fame or fortune, Belzer became the bohemian prince of New York City comedy, with fans including Robert De Niro, John Belushi, and Richard Pryor.
Belzer’s life took a turn for the better in the mid-1980s when he survived testicular cancer, quit drugs, and married Harlee McBride, a former Playboy model, and actress. In 1990, he found financial stability in an absurd and brutal way. Five years earlier, Hulk Hogan demonstrated a wrestling move on Belzer on TV, knocking him out and dropping him headfirst to the ground. An out-of-court settlement allowed Belzer and McBride to buy a home in France, which they called variously the Hulk Hogan Estate and Chez Hogan.
Bill Scheft, a friend of Belzer’s, confirmed his death, saying the actor had suffered from circulatory and respiratory issues for years. In a 2010 interview with AARP The Magazine, Belzer, who was a stand-up comic when he was not playing Munch, described his television alter ego as “Lenny Bruce with a badge.” Belzer’s character, John Munch, was known for his quips, and when accused of being a dirty old man, he responded: “Who are you calling old?” Belzer’s life of mistreatment, misbehavior, and missed opportunities prepared him for his star turn as a streetwise detective.