Even in the glare of the afternoon sun, through a restaurant window, there's no mistaking Richard Belzer, maneuvering his steel-gray Lexus into a parking space on a hot L.A. afternoon.
Catlike in body-hugging attire, Belzer strides into West Hollywood's Chado tea room wearing a long-sleeved black knit shirt, black slacks and black soft shoes, the personification of his acerbic hipster stand-up persona. He's a striking counterpoint to suit-wearing, bitingly cynical Lt. John Munch, whom he plays on NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street," which begins its new season Oct. 20.
Many fans assume his on-stage character mirrors his offstage one.
"People were afraid of me," Belzer, 51, acknowledges of his earliest days in stand-up. "Reporters wouldn't talk to me; people from the audience were scared that I was going to be mean."
But in person Belzer appears surprisingly gentle. The actor, whose on-screen demeanor keeps "Homicide" criminals quaking, speaks quietly as he describes his wildly funny, yet bitter and tough character.
The actor archly acknowledges that Munch is "exactly as I would be if I were a cop.
"I do almost no ad-libbing at all," Belzer says, flashing an unexpected grin. "The show's so well-written, that I just read [the lines]."
Homicide cops, Belzer explains, deal with death daily. These are not gun-toting guys. They solve murders, the actor stresses, so they need a sense of humor. "The guy my character's based on is way out there, funnier even than average," Belzer says.
When the show began, Munch "was a combination of that cop and me, and he's slowly evolved into me."
Why does Munch represent such a perfect example of Belzer's angry, intelligent stand-up comic persona as cop?
"I don't know," he acknowledges, sipping on hot tea. "I got the part in a weird way." He never auditioned for the critically acclaimed drama, which premiered after Super Bowl '93. A frequent guest on radio personality Howard Stern's show, Belzer's banter with Stern was heard by a producer.
Munch's sharply witty speech to a suspect in the premiere: "If you're gonna lie to me, lie to me with respect! Don't you ever lie to me like I'm Montel Williams! I'm not Montel Williams," was oft-quoted, helping solidify it as a favorite among critics.
"Here's a scoop for you," Belzer offers suddenly. His wife, actress Harlee McBride ("Young Lady Chatterley"), continues her role as "Homicide's" assistant medical examiner. "There'll be a romance," he says, noting his heavy lobbying to date his wife on screen has paid off. "I'm going to get to kiss my wife on TV," he says smugly. "It'll be great to see Munch on a date."
Belzer and McBride, who had just returned from hiatus, have a special affinity for the French countryside.
"My wife visited friends there," he explains. "And when she came back, she said, 'We have to get a house in France.' " A trip there won him over. "I have a French mortgage with a French bank," to go along with his Hollywood home and Baltimore townhome.
"In stand-up I traveled so much that staying in a place for four to eight months and then moving on is nothing," he says of Baltimore, where the book "Homicide" was set and where the show shoots, cinema verite style (hand-held camera). The Belzers are most often in their Baltimore home.
The Bridgeport, Conn., native became an iconoclast early. "I got kicked outta every school I was ever in," he recalls. Eventually, he managed to land a job as a reporter. Writing remains an interest. "I think if I wasn't an actor, I'd be a reporter," notes the author of the satirical "How to Be a Stand-Up Comic."
In the early '70s, while Belzer was between jobs, his first wife (McBride is wife No. 3), saw an ad for a stage show audition that eventually became 1974's cult movie "The Groove Tube." Belzer found a new career.
Belzer read five newspapers daily (he still does), which provided him with material. "I didn't have a prepared beginning and end word for my routines," he recalls. He'd often walk on stage talking about what he'd read in the papers that morning.
Stand-up led to a regular gig as host of New York's famed "Catch a Rising Star."
Along the way, Belzer took whatever acting roles came his way. He's appeared in numerous features, in whatever size role he could get.
"Face it, this is a wonderful business and I'm lucky to be working," he says, acknowledging the capriciousness of Hollywood.
Belzer found work during "Homicide's" most recent hiatus in Spike Lee's feature "Girl 6," the NBC movies "Deadly Pursuits" and "Prince for a Day," which airs Friday, and in last month's "Roger Corman Presents Not of This Earth" for Showtime.
Belzer has plans to expand his horizons even more, with a new CD in the works. "You can't just put out a comedy album anymore," he says. He hopes his multimedia CD-ROM and video project will be out in December, and he'll shuttle between Baltimore and New York, where his partner in the new venture lives.
Belzer's suddenly anxious. The next day, he and McBride head back to Baltimore and he needs to pack. "I've got to load books into the trunk of my car," which is being shipped to Baltimore the next day.
And he's glad to return. "I have to say," the actor adds with a smile, as he heads out to the car, "I really am the very happiest I've ever been."
"Homicide" airs Fridays at 10 p.m. on NBC. The new season begins Oct. 20 .