Richard Belzer, the lifelong stand-up comedian who became one of TV’s most iconic detectives as John Munch in Homicide: Life on the Street and Law & Order: SVU, has died. He was 78.
Belzer died Sunday at his house in Bozouls in southern France, his longtime friend Bill Scheft told The Hollywood Reporter. Comedian Laraine Newman originally reported his death on Twitter. The actor Henry Winkler, Belzer’s cousin, wrote “Rest in peace Richard.”
For more than two decades and spanning 10 programs — even counting appearances on 30 Rock and Arrested Development — Belzer played the wise-cracking, caustic homicide detective prone to conspiracy theories. Belzer initially played Munch on a 1993 episode of Homicide and last played him in 2016 on Law & Order: SVU.
Belzer never auditioned for the part. After hearing him on The Howard Stern Show, executive producer Barry Levinson brought the comic in to read for the part.
“I would never be a detective. But if I were, that’s how I’d be,” Belzer once said. “They write to all my suspicions and anti-establishment dissidence and conspiracy ideas. So it’s been a lot of fun for me. A dream, really.”
From that unusual beginning, Belzer’s Munch would become one of television’s longest-running characters and a sunglasses-wearing presence on the small screen for more than two decades. In 2008, Belzer published the novel I Am Not a Police! with Michael Ian Black.
He has helped author several books on conspiracy theories, involving matters like President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. “He made me laugh a billion times,” his longtime friend and fellow stand-up Richard Lewis remarked on Twitter.
Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Belzer was inspired to humor, he says, following an abusive childhood in which his mother would beat him and his older brother, Len. “My kitchen was the toughest space I ever handled,” Belzer told People magazine in 1993.
After being expelled from Dean Junior College in Massachusetts, Belzer began on a life of stand-up in New York in 1972. At Catch a Rising Star, Belzer became a regular.
He made his big-screen debut in Ken Shapiro’s 1974 film The Groove Tube, a TV parody co-starring Chevy Chase, a film that came out of the comedy group Channel One that Belzer was a part of.
Before Saturday Night Live transformed the comic landscape in New York, Belzer appeared alongside John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray and others on the National Lampoon Radio Hour. In 1975, he became the warm-up comic for the newly founded SNL.
While many cast members quickly became famous, Belzer’s appearances were primarily smaller cameos. He then stated SNL founder Lorne Michaels reneged on a commitment to work him into the show.