He was 78 years old. As John Munch on Homicide: Life on the Street and Law & Order: SVU, Richard Belzer became one of television’s most iconic detectives. He died Sunday at his home in Bozouls in southern France, his longtime friend Bill Scheft told The Hollywood Reporter. Comedian Laraine Newman first announced his death on Twitter. Belzer’s cousin, Henry Winkler, said, “Rest in peace Richard.”
For more than two decades and across 10 series — including appearances on 30 Rock and Arrested Development — Belzer played the wise-cracking, acerbic homicide detective prone to conspiracy theories. He first played Munch on a 1993 episode of Homicide and last played him on a 2016 episode of Law & Order: SVU.
“I would never be a detective,” Belzer said once after hearing him on The Howard Stern Show. Executive producer Barry Levinson brought him in to read for the part after hearing him on the show. “I would never be a detective. But if I were, that’s how I’d be,” Belzer once said. “They write to all my paranoia, anti-establishment dissidence and conspiracy theories.” It’s a dream come true.
From that unlikely 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. With Michael Ian Black, Belzer wrote the novel I Am Not a Cop! He also worked with Michael Ian Black on conspiracy theories including the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
“He made me laugh a billion times,” his longtime friend and fellow stand-up Richard Lewis said on Twitter. “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. ‘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. He made his big-screen debut in Ken Shapiro’s 1974 film The Groove Tube.
Before Saturday Night Live changed the comedy scene in New York, Belzer performed on the National Lampoon Radio Hour with John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray and others. In 1975, he became the warm-up comic for the newly launched SNL. While many cast members quickly became famous, Belzer was mainly featured in small cameos. Later, he claimed creator Lorne Michaels reneged on a promise to include him on the show.