Legendary actor, brilliant comedian and bestselling author Richard Belzer is known for his portrayal of Detective John Munch, one of the longest-running roles in television history.
Born in Connecticut in 1944, Richard Belzer wound his way toward New York City, and by the early 1970s had established himself on the comedy scene with his biting wit. After two decades’ worth of appearances onstage, in television and in film, in 1993 he landed the role for which he is best known, as Detective John Munch in the hit NBC series Homicide: Life on the Street. Belzer’s Munch was then incorporated into the crime series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a role that has lasted for more than 15 seasons. During this period, Belzer has also appeared in numerous other TV series and films and has also authored several conspiracy-theory themed books.
Richard Belzer was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on August 4, 1944, and displayed a penchant for mischief early on. Though these tendencies would serve him well in his later career, as a youth they led to expulsions from numerous schools, including Dean College, which he attended briefly before being asked to leave following his participation in several student demonstrations. The early deaths of his parents—his mother from breast cancer when he was 18 and his father’s suicide when he was 22—only contributed to the chaos that neither a stint in the army, numerous day jobs nor his first marriage could tame.
However, by the early 1970s, Belzer’s wanderings took him to New York City, where his rabble-rousing finally proved an asset, earning him a spot in the Channel One sketch-comedy group, which included rising comedic star Chevy Chase and resulted in Belzer’s screen debut in its 1974 film The Groove Tube. Meanwhile, Belzer was becoming a regular at New York City comedy clubs, sharpening his biting, sarcastic wit, eventually becoming the regular emcee at Catch a Rising Star and landing a role in the 1975 off-Broadway production of the National Lampoon stage show. When fellow cast members—including Chase, John Belushi, Bill Murray and Gilda Radner—went on to form the core of Saturday Night Live! Belzer followed, with three appearances on the program between 1976 and 1978, a period during which Belzer’s second marriage came and went.
By the early 1980s, Belzer’s growing network of connections—which included his cousin Henry Winkler—helped his career get to the next level, with small parts in such iconic films of the era as Fame (1980), Author! Author! (1982) and Scarface (1983). His comic endeavors continued to flourish as well, leading to the Cinemax series The Richard Belzer Show in 1984 and a spot as the host of the late-night television show Hot Properties, on which he was once famously knocked unconscious by wrestler Hulk Hogan, whom he later sued.
Wrestling injuries aside, by the latter half of the decade things were looking up for Belzer, who married actress Harlee McBride and began his career as an author with the satirical How to Be a Stand-Up Comic. He also continued to land parts in television and film, including on the series Miami Vice and The Flash and in Fletch Lives (1987) and Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), as well as making regular stand-up appearances on The Tonight Show and Late Night with David Letterman.
Becoming John Munch
Sarcastic, conspiratorial, self-deprecating and smooth, in 1993 Belzer was able to infuse his real-life personality into the fictional role for which he is best known—as Detective John Munch. Created for the much-acclaimed NBC series Homicide: Life on the Street, Belzer’s Detective Munch served as the comic relief to Ned Beatty’s gruff Detective Stanley Bolander for the show’s successful seven-season run. However, by the time Homicide came to an end in 1999, the character had become so popular that—after several cameos in earlier seasons—it was incorporated permanently into Dick Wolf’s Law & Order: Special Victim’s Unit.
Appearing as the partner of Ice-T’s Detective Tutuola, Belzer’s Detective John Munch remained a central character on the popular show for 15 seasons before it was retired in 2013, making it one of the longest-running roles in television history. During this period, Belzer also appeared as Munch on several other series, including Sesame Street, The X-Files, The Wire and 30 Rock, among others. In May 2016, Belzer and Munch returned to Law & Order: SVU in a guest appearance for a new episode.
Despite the demands of his duties as Detective John Munch, Belzer has simultaneously maintained his successful callings as a comedian, author and conspiracy theorist. In 1997 he starred in the HBO comedy special Richard Belzer: Another Lone Nut, and he has been a regular guest on the Howard Stern Show. He was cast as the president in the 1998 horror film Species II and appeared as himself in the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon (1999).
Among his literary offerings are the novels I Am Not a Cop (2008) and I Am Not a Psychic (2009), as well as the conspiracy-theory titles Hit List: An In-Depth Investigation into the Mysterious Deaths of Witnesses to the JFK Assassination (2013), Dead Wrong (2013) and Someone Is Hiding Something: What Happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370? (2015). He also hosts the conspiracy-centered series The Belzer Connection and the popular YouTube series Richard Belzer’s Conversation.