Remembering Richard Belzer

Richard Belzer and myself in 2011

Richard Belzer, an actor who parlayed his comedic success into a decades-long tenure in hard-hitting drama, passed away yesterday at the age of 78. 

Born Richard Jay Belzer in Bridgeport, Connecticut on August 4, 1944, he worked as a reporter for the Bridgeport Post before getting into comedy. His stand-up shows led to him joining the Channel One comedy group and making his screen debut in their film The Groove Tube. Following that, he worked as a warm-up comedian on Saturday Night Live and a featured player on the National Lampoon Radio Hour. He continued to work on television and radio in addition to live performances.

In 1993, Belzer was made part of the main cast of Homicide: Life on the Street. It was here that he first portrayed the character he would become most associated with, Detective John Munch. Crossovers with Law & Order brought him into that show’s universe, and while Dick Wolf wasn’t able to get him in time to be Lennie Briscoe’s partner, he did land him as one of the original cast members of the spinoff Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Belzer stayed on the show as a regular for 15 seasons, thereafter making sporadic appearances as a guest star when his character shifted to a D.A. investigator. At the time, he broke the record for the longest consistent portrayal of a live-action television character (he’s since been eclipsed by none other than his fellow SVU castmates Mariska Hargitay and Ice-T). 

Throughout all this time, Belzer’s Munch also appeared on numerous other shows. These include The X-Files, The Wire, Arrested Development, Law & Order: Trial by Jury, The Beat, Jimmy Kimmel Live, 30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and American Dad. 

His film roles alternated parts in comedies with working for auteurs such as Spike Lee, Milos Forman, Brian De Palma, and Abel Ferrara. Some of these are The Wrong Guys, Scarface, Night Shift (which also starred his cousin Henry Winkler), Fame, A Very Brady Sequel, Man on the Moon, Mad Dog and Glory, Species II, Café Flesh, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Author! Author!, North, Fletch Lives, Get on the Bus, Missing Pieces, The Puppet Masters, Off and Running, Girl 6, Dangerous Game, Jump, The Big Picture, Deadly Pursuits, Polish Bar, Santorini Blue, Alive in France, The Comedian, and Gilbert.

He also acted on other shows like The FlashLois & Clark, Miami Vice, Sesame Street, Moonlighting, The Larry Sanders Show, Monsters, The Invaders, South Park, Mad About You, and 3rd Rock from the Sun. Appearances were also made in music videos from Pat Benatar, Mike + The Mechanics, and Kansas. Additionally, he is the author of several popular books.

He is survived by his wife Harlee McBride and two stepdaughters.

As to the above picture, I met him in 2011 at a stand-up show he did at The Stress Factory in New Brunswick, NJ. The set was hilarious and even incorporated his BelzerVision videos. When he was finished and I introduced myself and requested an autograph, he replied immediately, “Yeah, why not? You seem like a nice guy.” It’s exactly that sharp wit that made him so good at his craft. The following year, though I did not work with him directly, I was an extra in one of his SVU episodes. 

I feel very fortunate to have had those experiences. Richard Belzer was a very talented, gracious, and, most of all, funny guy. He will be greatly missed.

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