Richard Belzer, who became one of American television’s most enduring police detectives as John Munch on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and several other shows, died on Sunday at his home in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, France. He was 78.
The death was confirmed by Bill Scheft, a friend of Mr. Belzer. Mr. Scheft, who has been working on a documentary about Mr. Belzer’s life and career, said that the actor had suffered from circulatory and respiratory issues for years.
As Detective Munch, Mr. Belzer was brainy but hard-boiled, cynical but sensitive. He wore sunglasses at night and listened to the horror stories of rape victims in stony silence. He was the kind of cop who made casual references to Friedrich Nietzsche and the novelist Elmore Leonard. He spoke in quips; when accused of being a dirty old man, he responded: “Who are you calling old?”
In a 2010 interview with AARP The Magazine, Mr. Belzer — who was a stand-up comic when he was not playing Munch — described his television alter ego as “Lenny Bruce with a badge.”
With Munch, Mr. Belzer found phenomenal success. In 2013, when the character was written out of “SVU” — as the “Law & Order” spinoff is often called — Mr. Belzer wrote in The Huffington Post that he had appeared as Munch in more than 500 hours of programming on 10 different shows.
The character’s run began in 1993, on “Homicide: Life on the Street,” and included guest appearances on “Sesame Street” and “30 Rock.”
At his retirement, Mr. Belzer was often described as the actor with the longest run playing the same character on television, as well as the actor who had played the same character on the largest number of different shows.
A life of mistreatment, misbehavior and missed opportunities prepared Mr. Belzer for his star turn as a streetwise detective.
Richard Jay Belzer was born on Aug. 4, 1944, in Bridgeport, Conn. He grew up in a housing project in the city. His father, Charles, co-owned a wholesale tobacco and candy distributor, and his mother, Frances (Gurfein) Belzer, was a homemaker.
“Our mother didn’t know how to love her sons appropriately,” Leonard, Mr. Belzer’s brother and a fellow comedian, told People magazine in 1993. “She always had some rationale for hitting us.”
Richard added, “My kitchen was the toughest room I ever worked. I had to make my mom laugh or I’d get my ass kicked.”
She died of cancer, and Charles died by suicide before Mr. Belzer turned 25. Leonard jumped from the roof of his Upper West Side apartment building and died in 2014.
Mr. Belzer routinely fought authority. “I was thrown out of every school I ever went to,” he told AARP. He served in the army for a little under a year, then received a discharge on psychiatric grounds after repeatedly injuring himself.
He went on to work as a truck driver, jewelry salesman, dress salesman, dock worker, census taker and reporter for The Bridgeport Post. In that job, he dreamed of becoming a serious writer — but instead spent his free time dealing drugs.
In 1971, Mr. Belzer answered an ad in The Village Voice for auditions for a sketch show, and soon enough he found himself performing stand-up. In 1975, he began working as a warm-up comic for the “Saturday Night Live” audience, but his friend Lorne Michaels did not invite him to join the cast. Mr. Belzer accused Mr. Michaels of breaking a promise to him — a charge Mr. Michaels did not comment on to People.
Absent fame or fortune, Mr. Belzer became the bohemian prince of New York City comedy. His fans included Robert De Niro, John Belushi and Richard Pryor. Mr. Belzer gained renown for working the crowd, which often meant insults — labeling, for instance, the bejeweled get-up of a drunk audience member as “Aztec pimp” — but could also include his attempting to start a brawl.
He held court at an Upper East Side club called Catch a Rising Star, where he was given an hourlong slot on a nightly basis. In 1981, a Rolling Stone profile described him as spending his final three dollars on a taxi to his set, performing while on quaaludes and mocking a famous talent manager in the audience.
“On the outside, he was still ‘The Belz,’ in shades and black leather punk jacket, coke-dealer thin, lupine, always cool and relentlessly self-assured,” David Hirshey and Jay Lovinger wrote. But on the inside, he was “scared” — 37 years old and still struggling to afford meals.
His life began turning around in the mid-1980s, when Mr. Belzer survived testicular cancer, quit drugs and married Harlee McBride, a former Playboy model and actress.
In 1990, he found financial stability in a characteristically absurd and brutal fashion. Five years earlier, Hulk Hogan, demonstrating a wrestling move on Mr. Belzer on TV, knocked out the comic and dropped him headfirst to the ground. An out-of-court settlement enabled Mr. Belzer and Ms. McBride to buy a home in France, which they called variously the Hulk Hogan Estate and Chez Hogan.
His career took off after he began appearing as Detective Munch on “Homicide,” when he was nearly 50 years old.
Mr. Belzer’s first two marriages — to Gail Susan Ross and Dalia Danoch — ended in divorce. He is survived by Ms. McBride; two stepdaughters, Bree and Jessica Benton; and six step-grandchildren.
Mr. Belzer came to own two homes in the south of France, and he built a basketball court at one of them. He enjoyed shooting baskets and waiting for one of his dogs to collect the rebounds. He read up on Roman history and visited ancient ruins.
At the start of his career in television, he spoke happily about leaving behind his romantic, rough-and-tumble years in stand-up comedy.
“I tell you,” he said to People, “I won’t miss making drunks laugh at 2 in the morning.”