Richard Belzer, comedian and Jewish TV cop for all seasons, dies at 78
Richard Belzer, the stand-up comedian who left an indelible mark on television as the character of Detective John Munch, a tough and versatile Jewish cop, has died at the age of 78. His death was first reported on social media by his friend, the actor Laraine Newman, of Saturday Night Live fame.
In the 1970s, Belzer served as the warm-up comedian for SNL, and he appeared multiple times on its early seasons in bit parts. He made memorable appearances in films like Fame and Author! Author! in the 1980s. Belzer moved on to a short-lived gig as the host of the cable TV talk show Hot Properties, where he interviewed Leonard Cohen and was knocked unconscious by Hulk Hogan (Belzer sued the wrestler; the parties settled out of court).
But Belzer’s most curious contribution to the culture was what began as a gig on Homicide: Life on the Street, where he played the wisecracking Baltimore Police Department Detective Munch for 122 episodes. Munch was never meant to be limited to one procedural, however, and soon made an appearance in a crossover episode of The X-Files. In a twist, Belzer, who had a reputation for believing conspiracy theories, played a skeptic on the sci-fi show.
Munch’s credits are to be envied by most working actors: appearing on The Wire and Mad About You, before finding his most steady employment attached to the NYPD’s special victim’s unit in Law & Order: SVU for 20 seasons. Single-handedly, Belzer’s Munch created a shared TV universe that includes the Muppets and Arrested Development’s Tobias Fünke.
“It was a bit of a miracle how I got the part,” Belzer said of Munch in an interview, noting how Homicide executive producer Barry Levinson brought him in to read after hearing him on The Howard Stern Show, where he was a regular guest. “I would never be a detective, but if I were, that’s how I’d be. The character’s very close to how I would be. They write to all my paranoia and anti-establishment dissidence and conspiracy theories.”
Out-of-character, Belzer, who retired from acting in 2016, was known for some out-there claims about the U.S. government, co-authoring Hit List: An In-Depth Investigation into the Mysterious Deaths of Witnesses to the JFK Assassination and other books. Belzer, who began his career on the National Lampoon Radio Hour, also made appearances on Alex Jones’ InfoWars radio show in the 2010s.
Belzer, who warned the U.S. was becoming a “fascist state” as early as 2013, had been living in the South of France.