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Though best known to television audiences as John Munch, the sharp-tongued detective from "Homicide: Life On the Street" (NBC, 1993-99) and "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" (NBC, 1999- ), Richard Belzer's career included a lengthy and respected stint as a stand-up comic, as well as stints as a television and radio talk show host, author, and producer. He was also a favorite guest on numerous TV talk shows for his acerbic and occasionally controversial statements, as well as for his noteworthy status as one of the most best known of all conspiracy buffs.Born Richard Jay Belzer on Aug. 4, 1944 in Bridgeport, CT, Belzer's early life seemed to set the tone for his adult persona. He lost both parents before he turned 25 (mother Francis succumbed to cancer when he was 18; father Charles, a candy and tobacco retailer, committed suicide when Belzer was 22), so not surprisingly, the youngster began acting out. His natural rebellious streak earned him suspensions throughout the Connecticut school circuit, but he eventually earned his diploma and worked briefly as a reporter for The Bridgeport Post, a paper he delivered to homes as a boy. He then took in a semester at Dean Junior College in Massachusetts,...
Though best known to television audiences as John Munch, the sharp-tongued detective from "Homicide: Life On the Street" (NBC, 1993-99) and "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" (NBC, 1999- ), Richard Belzer's career included a lengthy and respected stint as a stand-up comic, as well as stints as a television and radio talk show host, author, and producer. He was also a favorite guest on numerous TV talk shows for his acerbic and occasionally controversial statements, as well as for his noteworthy status as one of the most best known of all conspiracy buffs.
Born Richard Jay Belzer on Aug. 4, 1944 in Bridgeport, CT, Belzer's early life seemed to set the tone for his adult persona. He lost both parents before he turned 25 (mother Francis succumbed to cancer when he was 18; father Charles, a candy and tobacco retailer, committed suicide when Belzer was 22), so not surprisingly, the youngster began acting out. His natural rebellious streak earned him suspensions throughout the Connecticut school circuit, but he eventually earned his diploma and worked briefly as a reporter for The Bridgeport Post, a paper he delivered to homes as a boy. He then took in a semester at Dean Junior College in Massachusetts, before the administration requested his departure for having taken part in too many student demonstrations. Upon his return home, Belzer's father encouraged him to enlist in the Army. That stint came to an abrupt end, as did a brief turn as a yoga instructor and his first marriage.
Belzer relocated to New York City in the early 1970s, where he fell in with Ken Shapiro, who lead Channel One, a group of writers and comics (including Chevy Chase) who parodied television programming at an East Village club that broadcast their skits on televisions sets. Belzer eventually replaced Chase as the show's television news anchor, and both appeared in a compilation film of the troupe's best skits called "The Groove Tube" (1974). Belzer also began making regular appearances at some of New York's better-known comedy clubs, including Catch a Rising Star (where he was a regular MC and reportedly discovered singer Pat Benatar) and The Improv. He quickly proved himself a smart and cutting commentator on political and social events, offering an acerbic and unsympathetic take on his own history. Also a standout - his skill at devastating hecklers, which only added to his reputation as a comic badass.
Belzer also gained notice as a performer and contributor to the syndicated National Lampoon Radio Hour (1973-1974) and the Off-Broadway production "The National Lampoon Show" (1975), both of which featured many up-and-coming comic talents that would eventually form the original cast of "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ), such as John Belushi and Gilda Radner. Belzer followed them to the series as well, where he served as the show's audience warm-up for its first season and later appeared on three episodes as a guest performer between 1976 and 1978. Belzer was such a fixture at 30 Rock in its "S.N.L." heyday, that he was much later featured as himself in scenes from the Andy Kaufman biopic "Man in the Moon" (1999) that took place at "Saturday Night Live." Belzer also logged time during the '70s as a radio host for the series "Brinke and Belzer" on WNBC in New York.
Acting soon followed - it helped that Belzer's cousin was actor-producer Henry "The Fonz" Winkler - so he began appearing in feature films in the early 1980s, starting with a role as himself in the 1980 film "Fame." Supporting turns, based largely on Belzer's hip, fast-talking persona, soon followed, including "Night Shift" (1982) and "Author! Author!" (1982), as well as the cult classic, "Scarface" (1983), as a glib club MC. His comedy also made the rounds on network television; he was top-billed in "Belzer Behind Bars" (1983), which brought him and comic Paul Rodriguez to Arizona State Prison to perform for the inmates, and was a regular on Alan Thicke's ill-fated talk show "Thicke of the Night" (syndicated, 1983-84). Belzer also hosted his own sketch comedy series on Cinemax - "The Richard Belzer Show (1984) - and appeared on the first "Comic Relief" (1986) special, as well as numerous guest spots on "Late Night with David Letterman" (NBC, 1982-1993) and a regular guest hosting gig on the long-running "Friday Night Videos" (NBC, 1983-2000) from 1990-93.
His most notorious TV appearance during this period was the late night talk show "Hot Properties" (Lifetime, 1985), which he hosted during its brief run. During an appearance by wrestler Hulk Hogan, Belzer, in full Andy Kaufman-esque mode, asserted that wrestling was a fraud and insisted that the grappler put him in a traditional hold. Hogan wrapped Belzer's neck in a "sleeper hold," an infamous move designed to safely render the victim unconscious by placing pressure on their carotid arteries. Belzer passed out during the demonstration, and gashed open his forehead when Hogan dropped him to the floor. The comic later sued Hogan for $5 million, which was settled out of court for an unsubstantiated sum. The incident was bookended by a bout with testicular cancer, which Belzer endured in 1984.
Belzer's movie appearances suffered somewhat during the late 1980s and early 1990s - his features ranged from weirdo sketch comedy like Robert Downey, Jr.'s "America" (1986) and "Flicks" (1987), to big-budget dreck like "Fletch Lives" (1987) and "Bonfire of the Vanities" (1990). He found more substantial work on television - first, as oily anchorman and reporter Joe Kline on "The Flash" (CBS, 1990-91); and later as no-nonsense Inspector Henderson on "Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" (ABC, 1993-96). Belzer's stand-up career remained intact as well, with him landing his own Showtime special, "Belzer on Broadway," in 1992.
In 1993, Belzer was tapped by producers Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana to play acerbic detective John Munch on their acclaimed series "Homicide: Life On the Street." Based on real-life Baltimore homicide detective Jay Landsman - who also appeared in Fontana's "The Wire" (HBO, 2002-08) - Munch was the series' comic relief and a foil for veteran detective Stanley Bolander (Ned Beatty). After "Homicide" ended its run in 1999, Munch became a regular character on "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" - with the Fontana-Levinson series crossing paths with Dick Wolf's "Law and Order," (NBC, 1990- ) on four occasions - and his glib (and occasionally combative) patter, smooth appearance, and fascination for real and imagined conspiracies (all traits shared by Belzer himself) made him one of the show's most appealing characters. He also attracted the producers of other series as well, with Belzer appearing as Munch on five other series, including "The Beat" (UPN, 2000), "The X-Files" (Fox, 1993-2002), "Law and Order: Trial By Jury" (NBC, 2005), "Arrested Development" (Fox, 2003-06), and most amusing of all, "Sesame Street" (PBS, 1969- ). In doing so, Belzer entered the record books as the only actor in prime time television history to appear as the same character on seven different series - many in different genres - and on four different networks.
Belzer continued to perform stand-up during his busy TV run. He landed an HBO comedy special, "Another Lone Nut," in 1997, as well as a CD of the same name and material. He also managed to make several appearances in features, including "The Puppet Masters" (1994), as an alien-infected political aide; Rob Reiner's disastrous "North" (1994); Spike Lee's "Girl 6," as a phone sex customer and "Get On the Bus," as the curmudgeonly driver of a bus headed for the Million Man March; and "Species II" (1998), as the President of the United States. Most of his guest work at this time found him cast as a suspicious detective, a role that he settled into with little or no distress. Belzer's wit also made him a regular guest on Howard Stern's radio and television series (E!, 1994-2005) and "Real Time with Bill Maher" (HBO, 2003- ).
A popular guest at roasts for Rob Reiner and Chevy Chase, Belzer was himself honored by the New York Friars Club in 2001. His popularity saw that the event was the first time such a roast was open to the public. He also penned two books: How To Be a Stand-Up Comic (1986), and UFOs, JFK and Elvis: Conspiracies You Don't Have to Be Crazy to Believe (1999), and hosted "The Belzer Connection" (The Sci-Fi Channel, 2003- ), a series of specials based around his love for conspiracies and other strange phenomena.
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