Richard Belzer, the American comedian, actor, and writer, who gained fame for his iconic portrayal of Detective John Munch in several television series, passed away on February 20, 2023, at the age of 78. According to a longtime friend, writer Bill Scheft, Belzer died at his home in Bozouls, located in southwest France. Scheft reported that Belzer had been dealing with several health issues, and his last words were, “Fuck you, motherfucker.”
Belzer was born on August 4, 1944, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He grew up in an abusive household and had a difficult childhood. He found solace in comedy and began performing as a stand-up comedian in the 1970s. He made his film debut in The Groove Tube (1974) and appeared on Saturday Night Live in its early days, where he warmed up the audience.
Belzer became a household name when he portrayed Detective John Munch, one of the most beloved characters in TV history. He played the character in ten different TV series, including Homicide: Life on the Street and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Munch was a highly intelligent, doggedly diligent investigator who believed in conspiracy theories, distrusted the system, and pursued justice through a jaded eye. He was known for his dry, acerbic wit and sarcastic retorts.
Belzer’s portrayal of Munch was so iconic that the character lasted longer than other legendary characters such as James Arness on Gunsmoke and Kelsey Grammer on Cheers and Frasier. Munch first appeared in the first episode of Homicide in 1993 and made his last appearance on Law & Order: SVU in 2016.
In a 2016 interview, Homicide executive producer Barry Levinson said he first heard Belzer on The Howard Stern Show and liked him for the role of Munch. Levinson was impressed by Belzer’s rhythm and the way he talked. Belzer played Munch for seven seasons on Homicide before transitioning to Law & Order: SVU. Belzer wanted to continue playing the character, and when he learned that Benjamin Bratt was leaving Law & Order, he called his manager and suggested that Munch become Det. Lennie Briscoe’s partner. However, the creator of Law & Order, Dick Wolf, had other plans. Wolf was developing Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and he wanted Munch for that show.
When Law & Order: SVU debuted in 1999, Munch had relocated from Baltimore to New York to join forces with Det. Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Det. Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni). Belzer played the character for 14 seasons, and his sardonic demeanor fit perfectly with the dark tone of the show. Munch announced his retirement from the NYPD in 2014, but he returned two years later for the 17th-season episode “Fashionable Crimes.”
Belzer’s portrayal of Munch was not limited to Law & Order. The character appeared on a 1997 episode of The X-Files that dealt with the origins of the Lone Gunmen, the show’s resident conspiracists. Munch also appeared on The Beat, Law & Order: Trial by Jury, and The Wire. Belzer played Munch for laughs on Arrested Development, 30 Rock, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. A puppet that looked like Munch even made an appearance on Sesame Street.