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Richard Belzer Was An Old Crank To The End

9:05 AM EST on February 20, 2023

Richard Belzer during 55th Annual Writers Guild of America East Awards - Arrivals at The Pierre Hotel in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage)
Jim Spellman/WireImage

Richard Belzer died Sunday morning at the house in the South of France he bought by suing Hulk Hogan. His last words, according to a friend, were "Fuck you, motherfucker." He was 78, which seemed apropos given that he always seemed on the verge of being 78. Even his signature stand-up piece, the strutting Mick Jagger impersonation in which he looked like a peripatetic rooster with different sized shoes, worked better because Belzer looked like an old guy doing Jagger.

Then again, that was sort of Belzer all over, a constant collision of influences and ideas that left an indelible yet sometimes contradictory mark. He was a semi-devout conspiracy theorist who appeared more than once on the bilious Alex Jones radio show and wrote four books including UFOs, JFK, and Elvis: Conspiracies You Don’t Have to Be Crazy to Believe, and Dead Wrong: Straight Facts on the Country’s Most Controversial Cover-Ups, but he probably took the most pride in this much smaller item:

That, we submit, is better than a million Emmys melted down and recast as a gigantic Emmy for the front yard.

Belzer, though, was best known and most seen as the relentlessly recurring character John Munch, the Baltimore-turned–New York homicide detective who lasted 22 years on six separate series, starting with the seminal Homicide: Life On The Street. As context, only two other characters in television history—George Wendt's Norm and John Ratzenberger's Cliff from Cheers—managed to appear in that many in-universe shows and spin-offs, and only Belzer’s co-star Mariska Hargitay has played the same character for a longer consecutive stretch.

Belzer helped usher in a small yet noteworthy set of seemingly odd TV casting choices that worked far better than anyone could have imagined, as his actual and screen lives seemed to be at profound conceptual odds. A slightly deeper view, though, suggests that he was actually well-connected philosophically to Munch, the cop who couldn't be fazed by the panoply of depraved human behaviors placed before him. He couldn't age out of the role because, as we said, he started out old and stayed there as any good TV detective would, with a signature weather- and world-beaten sensibility and worldview that matched his conspiracy-infused real-life convictions.

He made galactically more sense than any of the army of pretty-kid TV cops who in the minds of their creators apparently got fast-tracked to detective while still in high school and were breaking up crime rings at age 25. After all, as we all know, nothing is a more important character trait in dealing with massive criminal organizations dealing in human and drug trafficking, international smuggling, and global terrorism than looking hot. You know, like almost anyone stuck in the poisonous casting web of the NCIS: Your Least Favorite Town series.

Belzer wasn't that, not by a long shot, but whether by dint of writing or just his ability to modify the character to meet his off-screen attitudes at some midway point, he ended up an iconic character in the two most important network cop series of the last quarter-century. He makes more sense even now, a decade after he was written out of L&O.

Indeed, Munch was referenced just days ago on an episode when Fin (Ice-T, of course, another bit of seemingly strange but actually inspired casting) described him to his new partner. "See, I had a partner years ago, an old homicide detective…  He retired. I guess he just ran out of gas. Last I heard, he moved back to Baltimore. Met a divorced female rabbi. And he bought back his old cop bar. It’s 1:30 a.m. He’s probably cracking a joke to some barfly. That skinny bastard had a punchline for every second of the day."

Now that's a character with legs. Mick Jagger's legs, as it happens.

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