Richard Belzer, the longtime stand-up comedian who became one of TV’s most indelible detectives as John Munch in “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “Law & Order: SVU,” has died. He was 78.
Belzer died on Sunday, February 19, at his home in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, in southern France, as confirmed by his longtime friend Bill Scheft.
Scheft, a writer who had been working on a documentary about Belzer, said there was no known cause of death, but that Belzer had been dealing with circulatory and respiratory issues. The actor Henry Winkler, Belzer’s cousin, tweeted, “Rest in peace Richard.”
Laraine Newman, an original ‘SNL’ cast member who worked alongside Belzer from the mid-’70s through the ’80s, also confirmed his death.
I’m so sad to hear of Richard Belzer’s passing. I loved this guy so much. He was one of my first friends when I got to New York to do SNL. We used to go out to dinner every week at Sheepshead Bay for lobster. One of the funniest people ever. A master at crowd work. RIP dearest.
Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Belzer was drawn to comedy, he said, during an abusive childhood in which his mother would beat him and his older brother, Len. He would do impressions of his childhood idol, Jerry Lewis. “My kitchen was the toughest room I ever worked,” Belzer told People magazine in 1993.
After being expelled from Dean Junior College in Massachusetts, Belzer embarked on a life of stand-up in New York in 1972. At Catch a Rising Star, Belzer became a regular performer and an emcee. He made his big-screen debut in Ken Shapiro’s 1974 film “The Groove Tube,” a TV satire co-starring Chevy Chase, a film that grew out of the comedy group Channel One that Belzer was a part of.
Before “Saturday Night Live” changed the comedy scene in New York, Belzer performed with 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 launched “SNL.” While many cast members quickly became famous, Belzer’s roles were mostly smaller cameos. He later said “SNL” creator Lorne Michaels reneged on a promise to work him into the show.
Belzer became one of the era’s top stand-ups. He was known especially for his biting, cynical attitude and his witty, sometime combative banter with the audience. As one of the most influential comedians of the ’70s, Belzer was a master of crowd work.
Belzer was most known for portraying Det. John Munch on ‘Law & Order: SVU’, dating back to 1996. He’d starred in over 300 episodes of the fan-fave cop series, playing the quick-witted and razor-sharp Munch for several years. His character was written off in 2016.
His famous police character had also existed even before ‘SVU’ came around, Munch had existed in another TV universe, namely, on the classic hit ‘Homicide,’ where he starred opposite Ned Beatty, Daniel Baldwin and other big actors for seven straight seasons.
Belzer is survived by his third wife, the actress Harlee McBride, whom he married in 1985. For the past 20 years, they lived mostly in France, in homes he purchased partially from the proceeds of a lawsuit with Hulk Hogan. In 1985, Belzer had Hogan as a guest on his cable TV talk show “Hot Properties” to perform a chin-lock on him. Belzer passed out, hit his head and sued Hogan for $5 million. They settled out of court.