Richard Belzer

by Eirik Knutzen | May 24, 2001
Richard Belzer "I literally can`t get arrested," says Richard Belzer, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit`s" (Friday, 10-11 p.m. EDT, NBC), craggy-faced, cynical and sarcastic Detective John Munch. "I`ve been pulled over for speeding, but the minute I roll down the window they go, `Hey, Munch, don`t do that anymore!`"

A few years ago, he came very close to being ticketed for zooming through Maryland fast enough to anger a law enforcement officer.

"I wasn`t doing 100 (m.p.h.) or anything, but it was just enough to get stopped. When he looked into the car and recognized my face he said, `Just make sure to say on your show that the Maryland State Troopers are the best state troopers in America.` I did."

But Belzer, 58, has a mutual love affair with legions of cops throughout the country, appearing at police benefit events coast-to-coast and co-

hosting the National Association of Police Organizations annual convention honoring their heroes in Washington.

"As my wife says, `Honey, you are a cop.` A couple of times, on really rainy days in New York and I couldn`t find cabs, I`ve hailed police cars and gotten rides home. New York is a small town in its own way."

The Munch character - written before Belzer was cast in the role - is loosely based on an anonymous, real-life Baltimore detective who once served as a technical adviser on the "Homicide: Life On The Streets" (1993-99) set.

"I`m amazed at how detectives love John Munch," he says. "It seems like he hits a nerve because every police precinct has a guy just like him - someone who`s really smart, well-read and comes off with a dark, gallows sense of humor at the scenes of horrific crimes. It`s also the acerbic way I would express myself if I were a detective."

Belzer doesn`t always appreciate the finer points of playing a TV detective when he is freezing his butt off in mid-January as arctic blasts of air bounces off the East River at 4 o`clock in the morning.

"But it is a fact that Munch has transformed my life," he says, eternally grateful. "Munch is the reason I`ve been working steadily for the last nine television seasons, and getting other work because of it. It now affords me the luxury of turning things down."

Due to Belzer`s acting skills and lots of luck, the opinionated Detective Munch has become the most traveled character in U.S. television series history. Besides residing on "Law & Order: SVU" and "Homicide," the cantankerous gumshoe occasionally cropped up on "Law & Order," "The X-Files" and "The Beat." Come fall, he is expected to work overtime on yet another "L & O" spin-off show from executive producer Dick Wolf called "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."

And he is expected to participate in a five-hour miniseries in May of next year, which launches with a two-hour movie key personnel from "Law & Order," "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."

The following three hours will be split evenly between the three shows, each handling a different aspect of the story. Strangely enough, the heavy schedule leaves him enough time to co-write, co-produce and star in upcoming feature films titled "Standup Guy" and "Noose."

But before tackling the 2001-02 season, the Manhattan resident and his wife, actress Harlee McBride, will spend a couple of months at their summer home in the South of France in a tiny village near Toulouse.

"It`s a wonderful stone house in the country surrounded by vineyards where I probably will retire some day, though `Law & Order` has finally hit French television. The cat`s out of the bag, and my neighbors are impressed - but they are subtle about it. Nobody`s banging on my door. It still has the most idyllic lifestyle on Earth."

Born and raised in Bridgeport, Conn., he was part of the American dream until the family fell apart. More or less. Belzer was close to his father, a successful vending machine salesman, but faced some rough times with his physically abusive mother. The toughest room he ever played was the family kitchen. Whenever he could make his mom laugh, she wouldn`t hit him. Usually.

A smart-ass, Belzer was tossed out of every school he attended as a kid. The habit slopped over to his late teens, when booted out of Dean Junior College for leading demonstrations for truly stupid causes. Little did he know that he was laying the foundation for a very lucrative career in the process, though side-tracked now and then with stints as a reporter for the Bridgeport Post, census taker, dock worker and a jewelry salesman.

Belzer was still a young man when his mother died of breast cancer; horribly depressed, his father committed suicide four years later. The turn of events shocked him into action, finally giving his dream of getting into show business a real chance. He studied acting ever so briefly, then made his professional debut playing 10 characters in the feature film "Groove Tube" (1973). As the movie acquired cult status, he gained the confidence to give standup comedy a shot.

Gradually, while working as an emcee at the Catch A Rising Star and other New York comedy clubs for five years, he worked up an act revolving around his disdain and distrust of anything governmental or disseminated by the media. He tried every medium, including stage, radio, television and such feature films as "Fame," "Night Shift," "Scarface" and "Author, Author."

While he climbed the slippery ladder, two marriages went south. And then, in the early `80s, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He beat the odds, but it was a grueling fight.

"You certainly get a sense of your own mortality and discover that all those near-death cliches are true," he grumbles. "You do look at your life differently, like you`re living on borrowed time. A week doesn`t go by where I don`t think about (the cancer) and how it has affected my life. I`m so much more cognizant now of what I do with my time and who I spent it with."

He met Harlee - complete with two young daughters - in 1981 and they married four years later. She is the one who taught him "patience, love and acceptance" and hung in there during success and failure. One of his shortest gigs was hosting a 1986 cable talk show called "Hot Properties."

A guest, professional wrestler Hulk Hogan, knocked him cold while "demonstrating" a hold. Belzer sued and settled out of court.

"I won and got the down-payment for my house in France - Maison de Hogan," he explains. "Apparently, he`s out of the business and I`m living happily ever after. There`s justice in this world."

(c) Copley News Service

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Author: Eirik Knutzen


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