The actor: Richard Belzer, an institution on the New York comedy scene in the ’70s and ’80s, known for his savvy, cynical take on politics and popular culture. Belzer carried that persona with him into television in 1993 when he signed on to play Detective John Munch in the groundbreaking police drama Homicide: Life On The Street. When Homicide ended, Belzer was asked to move Munch to Law & Order, and then to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, where he’s been a regular since 1999.
The Groove Tube (1974)—assorted roles
Richard Belzer: We were very high. When we wrote it, when we shot it, when we premièred it, and when we realized we’d made a movie. It was truly underground in the sense that before it was a movie, we had a little theater and we showed Groove Tube on three monitors in a 90-seat theater. So for people to pay to see television, before cable, it was pretty innovative.
The A.V. Club: Did you see yourself then as part of the comedy scene, or part of the theater scene?
RB: I think the comedy scene. This was theater, but it was on video. It was the inspiration for Lorne Michaels. He saw Groove Tube and got the idea for Saturday Night Live. We didn’t realize we would be this seminal force. There was Kentucky Fried Movie and a lot of people that were influenced by the early Groove Tube stuff.
Saturday Night Live (1975-1980)—warm-up act and performer
RB: Yeah, I was the warm-up act and I did some of the sketches in the early days.
AVC: Did you want to do more? Would you have liked to have been asked to be a regular writer and performer?
RB: Oh yeah. Absolutely. But that’s water under the proverbial bridge.The digital bridge. Arguably the first five years of Saturday Night Live were some of the most radical things ever seen on television. When NBC said “Okay, you can do a show from 11:30 to 1 on Saturday night,” they didn’t think anyone would watch. It was like giving a piece of the candy store to the kids. And luckily they had John [Belushi] and Billy [Murray] and Gilda [Radner] and [Michael] O’Donoghue and Laraine [Newman]. It’s amazing. It was an all-star team of comedy. I think there hadn’t been anything like it since Your Show Of Shows with Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner. This was the next generation’s answer to satiric sketch comedy.
AVC: Were you always interested in being on television?
RB: Well, the game plan was to make a living doing stand-up, and television was like a reward down the road. In the early days, you just did clubs and hopefully would get on The Tonight Show or Merv Griffin or something. So television was certainly every comedian’s wish and goal, to have that parlay of a great Tonight Show shot and then get a sitcom. That was the mindset in the ’70s.
RB: I’ve been cast as myself so many times, I guess I should catch on and figure out if it’s a compliment. Yeah, Alan Parker directed that. And we shot part of it at Catch A Rising Star, this club I worked in. And I remember Alan said to me, “Richard, I want you to do your stick.” I said, “Alan, it’s shtick.”
AVC: What did you think of the kid comedian’s act in that movie? Was it credible?
RB: I vaguely remember it. It’s very, very hard to act like a stand-up as opposed to doing stand-up. There are very few actors who could pull that off. Tom Hanks was actually very good when he did it. The material he had to work with, it was okay, but he was playing this angry guy, so it worked. It’s a hard thing to pull off. It’s the live experience that makes stand-up what it is, so it’s hard to recreate. Unless you shoot it live, and then use the real footage in the film.
Student Bodies (1981)—“The Breather”
RB: I forgot doing that, frankly. I don’t deny it. I’ve heard it, and it certainly is my voice on the phone. I swear I don’t remember doing that. [Laughs.] Was that from the ’70s?
AVC: 1981. It was a comedy version of a slasher film.
RB: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I vaguely remember that. I must have been highly medicated.
Café Flesh (1982)—“Loudmouth”
RB: That I remember. A friend of mine asked me to do that. Fortunately, I didn’t have to disrobe. I played an MC of the future or something. It’s funny, I didn’t realize how graphic that film would be when I shot it. And then I saw it and thought “Holy shit!” Strange film. That, I remember. It was kind of a mini cult film.
Scarface (1983)—“MC At Babylon Club”
RB: I was asked to audition. Oliver Stone wrote the screenplay and Brian De Palma directed. I went to audition for the producer, and the producer said “Okay, Richard, do your act.” And I said, “No, I don’t work in offices, I work at clubs. If you guys want to come down to one of the clubs and see me, then I’d be glad to.” And then they gave me a script, like an MC script that they wanted me to ad-lib off of, and I refused to do that, and I could see that the producer was getting angry. I think Oliver was a bit amused, because I know 20 other comedians had gone in and done stuff for them, and I didn’t. So I got the part. But the producer knew who I was and had seen me work, so he just said, “Make sure it’s funny. We want the audience in the theater to laugh the way the audience in a club would.” So they let me write my own stuff, and I felt good about that. Let me make the coke jokes I wanted.
The Wrong Guys (1988)—“Richard ‘Belz’ Belzer”
RB: Richard Lewis, Tim Thomerson, Louie Anderson. We had more laughs on that movie than legally allowed. We were slowing the filming, just laughing hysterically. That’s all I remember. Really having a great time. Of course, the movie wasn’t considered the Citizen Kane of comedy, but I thought it was a sweet movie. More of a kids’ movie, but marketed as an adult comedy, which was the problem. A lot of good memories, though, I’ll tell ya that. Richard Lewis and I were very close friends. We started hanging out in the early ’70s, Catch A Rising Star and Improv. We were very close. And Tim was a good friend. Louie was a friend, I didn’t know him that well, but I knew him. It was wild. One day we literally almost died, laughing so hard. We were working on the side of the mountain, we started rolling down the side of the mountain as we were laughing. I have to say Tim Thomerson is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.
The Big Picture (1989)—“Video Show Host”
RB: That was Christopher Guest’s movie with Kevin Bacon where they asked me to play an MTV DJ and comment on the band’s song or something. Of course Chris just said, “This is what we want to accomplish, do whatever you want.” Chris and I had worked together on the National Lampoon with John Belushi and Michael O’Donaghue, and Billy and Brian Murray, and we did a couple of Lampoon albums and the Lampoon radio show. So I’ve known Chris a long time.
AVC: Have you ever been asked to be in one of those big improv movies he does?
RB: No, I have not, sir.
AVC: Have you ever asked to be included?
Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1999)—“Detective John Munch”
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (1999-present)—“ Detective John Munch”
RB: Well, Barry Levinson heard me on the radio and they brought me in. They had cast the entire show, but they couldn’t find a Munch. They had read a bunch of actors, and Barry wanted me. They called the network to say, “We’ve found our Munch!” And NBC said, “Great. Who is it?” And they said, “Richard Belzer.” And there was dead silence at the other end of the line. Finally NBC said, “Oh, he’s great, but we wanted a hunk. Like a Jason Priestley type for Munch.” And they said, “No, no. Barry wants Richard.” And they said, “Okay.” And that was 18 years ago.
AVC: And you’ve now played Munch on six, seven different shows?
RB: Ten. That we know of.
AVC: It’s interesting that they wanted someone hunkier, because one of Homicide’s hallmarkswas that everybody looked so natural and normal, and one of the criticisms later on was that the cast had turned over and had become younger and sexier.
RB: Yeah, I never got caught up in that part of it. Everyone who was on the show were all good actors. So if it was perceived that we were bringing in sexier people, I don’t think that was a conscious intent.
AVC: Were you privy to any of the battles between the creative staff on that show and the network, in trying to make Homicide more audience-friendly?
RB: I know that Tom Fontana, who was our reigning genius, was locking horns constantly with Standards & Practices, the censorship department. I don’t think there were any real compromises, frankly. Maybe if there were, the show would still be on. I dare not say. But we did 122 episodes, always under the threat of cancellation, as was St. Elsewhere, Tom’s other brilliant show. He’s one of the guys who always fights for what he believes in. I remember once, an executive who will go unnamed said to Tom, “On ER,the person lives and there’s an up ending.” And Tom said, “Uh, the name of the show is Homicide.” [Laughs.] Anyway, we’re all very proud of that show, obviously. Every once in a while I’ll catch a rerun and just marvel at how good it is. As everyone does to this day, whomever I talk to. Other actors genuflect when I mention it.
AVC: The show’s style was so bracing. Did you have a sense when you were making it of how it was going to look? Like when they did multiple takes of the same moment?
RB: Barry told me that his inspiration for the look of the show was Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, and documentaries, and shows like COPS, where the camera was in the middle of everything. He made the camera another actor. It wasn’t a big camera, a lot of times there would be no coverage, it would just be a scene where the camera was in the middle of a bunch of us, going from actor to actor, and it was certainly a different style, but I loved it. It helped most of us be more natural, and it felt really comfortable how he was shooting it. It was very intimate.
AVC: What did you see as Munch’s role in the mix of Homicide personalities?
RB: Well, as Tom Fontana put it, Munch was the spice in these dishes. Munch was based on a real guy in Baltimore who was a star detective, in a way. He would come onto grisly murder scenes, start doing one-liners, because someone had to break the tension. So Munch served a very important function. Not only was he a dissident who said what was on his mind, he kind of had the gallows humor that’s needed in a homicide squad. Because they see the most horrific things you could imagine.
AVC: Do you think of Munch as the same character from show to show?
RB: Oh yeah, absolutely. He’s changing only by becoming more cynical, perhaps.
AVC: If someone gave you a script for a Law & Order episode that had you doing something you felt wasn’t very Munch-like, would you say something about it?
RB: That really happens so rarely, I’m happy to say. There are times when I say, “You know, I might say this differently,” and they’ll say okay, but it’s never a big issue. Writers really get Munch.
AVC: What do you think are the reasons for the enduring popularity of the Law & Order shows?
RB: I think part of it is that Americans are forever fascinated by crime and by the procedural, and the genius of Law & Order is that you get the procedural and then you get the trial part. You get this package where there’s a beginning, a middle, and the end. You don’t have to have known that five episodes ago, one of the characters got in the car accident. I think the genius of Dick Wolf is, these episodes are all standalone. If you watch it for years, you may pick up things about the characters, but you don’t really need to know that stuff. I live in Europe, and I travel a lot. And everywhere I go, people are addicted to the show, and they watch the same ones over and over again. I don’t want to say I’m mystified by it, but it’s fascinating to me that it’s so addictive, and that’s a credit to the writers, and particularly to the formula. Unfortunately, people will never stop doing bad things to each other, so we’ll always have story material.
AVC: Where do you live in Europe?
RB: In southwestern France. We’ve been living there for 20 years now. I work seven, eight months a year, and I’m there for four months or so.
AVC: Do you stay in touch with your Homicide castmates?
RB: Yes, Clark Johnson and I are very close. He comes to France almost every year, or his daughters come. We’ve become very close. As far as other cast members, I’m still in touch with Tom Fontana, of course, we’re very close. Once in awhile I talk to Kyle [Secor]. But mainly it’s Clark that I’m close with still.
AVC: He’s developed into an excellent TV director.
RB: He directed on Homicide, and was great right away. We could see it. He also did Boycott, which was brilliant, and he’s done a couple of features. He’s doing really well. He was also on The Wire as the editor of the newspaper.
AVC: What makes a good TV director versus a good film director?
RB: There’s a big difference. We’re doing a 43-minute show, and we have eight or nine days to do it. It’s not like a movie, where the director has a little more time and luxury. But on a show like SVU that’s been on so long, there’s a certain way we bring in different directors. There are rules they have to follow. I think some film directors come in and they’re a little surprised by the limitations. And some people like the idea that it is a fixed amount of time to do a certain thing, and they take up the challenge. As far as working with the actors, I think some of the same skills are involved. Except that if you’re directing someone who has played the same character for 10 or 12 years, it’s not the same as directing someone who is playing that character for the first and only time in a movie.
The Flash (1990-91)—“Joe Klein”
Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman (1994)—“Inspector Henderson”
RB: Oh yeah. I played this smartass television personality in The Flash. I thought the show had some good qualities. It was before all the big superhero stuff. We had fun doing it, and I thought it looked pretty good on television. Then I played Inspector Henderson on Lois & Clark, which was kind of great, because as a kid, I watched Superman, and now I’m Inspector Henderson. That was like, “Holy shit.” I’m a Superman fan, so that was almost too much for me.
AVC: Were you just a fan of the TV show, or did you read the comics too?
RB: Oh, everything.
AVC: Are you still a comic-book reader?
RB: Not avidly, but I love the art, and I occasionally I’d look at an old one or pick up a graphic novel. I love the form.
AVC: Do you live near R. Crumb? Isn’t he in the south of France too?
RB: He is in the south, but I’m in the southwest. I wouldn’t mind bumping into him over a glass of Margaux sometime.
Girl 6 (1996)—“Beach”
Get On The Bus (1996)—“Rick”
RB: Oh, the two Spike [Lee] things, yeah. Spike called me up. It’s funny, he just says, “You’re going to play…” He doesn’t ask me if I want to do it, he just tells me the character, assuming that I’ll do it, and of course I did. Get On The Bus was great, because I got to work with, I think it was 15 great actors. Andre Braugher was in that, and Ossie Davis, Bernie Mac. A bunch of great actors. I think it didn’t get the attention it deserved. Spike doesn’t shy away from real issues. Even though I had a problem with the fact that it was about a Farrakhan event, the movie had a point that was bigger than Farrakhan.
Plus I had to learn how to drive a bus, and one day I was doing a test drive, and I pulled into where the actors were waiting, and I was having a little trouble. It just flashed through my mind: “Richard Belzer Kills Best Black Actors In America.” “Jew Comic Slaughters Half Of Black Hollywood.” It was pretty funny.