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Richard Belzer, stand-up comic and sarcastic TV detective, dies at 78

A man with gray hair wearing sunglasses and a black suit points finger guns toward the camera
Richard Belzer attends the 2008 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in New York.
(Evan Agostini / Associated Press)
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Richard Belzer, a revered actor and comedian known for playing wisecracking detective John Munch on numerous TV series — including “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” — has died. He was 78.

Belzer died Sunday morning at his home with family by his side in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, France, comedy writer Bill Scheft confirmed to the Los Angeles Times. He had “been dealing with circulatory and respiratory issues for years,” according to Scheft, a longtime friend of the entertainer.

For the record:

9:34 a.m. Feb. 22, 2023A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Richard Belzer is survived by six grandchildren. He is not survived by any grandchildren.

“His last words were, ‘F— you, motherf—,’” Scheft told The Times.

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Before making a name for himself on the small screen, Belzer performed stand-up at comedy clubs such as Pip’s, the Improv and Catch a Rising Star in New York City. He also served as a warm-up act on “Saturday Night Live” in the early days of the sketch comedy program.

Belzer debuted the beloved character of John Munch on the 1990s crime drama “Homicide: Life on the Street” before reprising the role for “Homicide: The Movie” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” His sarcastic portrayal of Munch was so popular, Belzer also made cameos and guest appearances as the witty investigator in a number of other shows, including “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “30 Rock,” “The Wire,” “Arrested Development” and “The X-Files.”

After 20 years, Richard Belzer’s John Munch retires

During his career, Belzer’s Munch surpassed Kelsey Grammer’s Dr. Frasier Crane of “Cheers” and James Arness’ Marshal Matt Dillon of “Gunsmoke” as the most prolific TV character of all time.

After Munch retired on a landmark episode of “SVU” in 2013, Belzer penned a heartfelt essay bidding farewell to his onscreen alter ego for the Huffington Post. He returned to the show, however, for one final appearance in 2016.

“I am truly blessed to have been in the company of so many remarkable people for such a long time!” Belzer wrote in 2013.

“Yes, I am sad. Yes, it’s bittersweet. But after 21 years, smart money is on Munch not totally disappearing from the face of the earth. If Sherlock Holmes can survive the Reichenbach Falls then surely we have not seen the last of Detective Sergeant John Munch.”

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.

In a statement shared on Instagram, “SVU” star Mariska Hargitay remembered Belzer as a “dear, dear friend.” Christopher Meloni, who plays detective Elliot Stabler on “SVU,” tweeted, “Good bye mon ami. I love you” in honor of his late co-star.

“I will miss you, your unique light, and your singular take on this strange world,” said Hargitay, who plays detective Olivia Benson on “SVU.”

“I feel blessed to have known you and adored you and worked with you, side by side, for so many years. How lucky the angels are to have you. I can hear them laughing already. I love you so very much, now and forever.”

Who’s afraid of Richard Belzer? The White House Correspondents Assn., for one.

Prolific TV producer Dick Wolf, who created “SVU,” hailed Belzer as a “consummate professional” who “brought humor and joy into all our lives.”

“Richard Belzer’s Detective John Munch is one of televsion’s iconic characters,” Wolf wrote in a statement.

“I first worked with Richard on the ‘Law & Order’/‘Homicide’ crossover and loved the character so much. I told Tom (Fontana) that I wanted to make him one of the original characters on ‘SVU.’ The rest is history. ... We will all miss him very much.”

Belzer is survived by his wife, Harlee McBride; his stepdaughters, Bree and Jessica Benton.

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