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Remembering comic and 'Law & Order' actor Richard Belzer

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Richard Belzer, the sharp-witted, sharp-tongued stand-up comic who ended up portraying one of the most durable detectives on television, died Sunday at his home in France. He was 78 years old. Belzer started his stand-up career in comedy clubs in the early 1970s. He was one of the comics featured on the "National Lampoon Radio Hour," a breeding ground for a virtual who's who of counterculture comedy. Belzer eventually went on to "Saturday Night Live," but he worked mostly as the show's warmup comic.

As an actor, Belzer broke out in the video and film versions of "The Groove Tube" and landed one-shot guest roles on such hit '80s shows as "Miami Vice" and "Moonlighting." In 1985, he hosted a short-lived TV series, "Hot Properties," with a guest list so eclectic it included not only Mr. T and Hulk Hogan but Little Richard and Leonard Cohen. But Richard Belzer hit pay dirt when he originated the role of Detective John Munch, a TV role he ended up portraying in 10 different series over more than 20 years, ending in a long co-starring role on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAW AND ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT")

DANN FLOREK: (As Donald Don Cragen) You had one hell of a run, Sergeant Munch.

RICHARD BELZER: (As John Munch) Did I? I don't know where it all went.

BIANCULLI: Belzer first played Detective John Munch in a superb NBC cop series called "Homicide: Life On The Street," which premiered in 1993. In his introductory scene, Belzer, as Munch, visits a local hospital to interview a patient who's a murder witness and a possible suspect who claims to have cut his hand on a fence. Munch has a quick mind, a quicker mouth and a clear inferiority complex.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET")

BELZER: (As John Munch) What fence, Bernard?

STEVE HARRIS: (As Bernard) Corner of Denmore and Ghass (ph).

BELZER: (As John Munch) That's a schoolyard over there, right? Let's go and see.

HARRIS: (As Bernard) See what?

BELZER: (As John Munch) Well, there better be some blood around the fence, right? The Billard (ph) brothers are in the morgue with more holes than in Augusta National. I'm thinking in some place, in the middle of all that action, the knife got slippery.

HARRIS: (As Bernard) OK. I was there, but I didn't kill them.

BELZER: (As John Munch) Who killed them?

HARRIS: (As Bernard) A Jamaican killed them.

BELZER: (As John Munch) A Jamaican. What's his name?

HARRIS: (As Bernard) I don't know. But he's the one that cut me, said he'd kill me, too, if I said anything.

BELZER: (As John Munch) When did he tell you that?

HARRIS: (As Bernard) Well, when he drove me to the hospital.

BELZER: (As John Munch) So this unnamed mystery Jake (ph) kills both Billard brothers, cuts your hand, drives you to Hopkins bleeding all over his car and swears you to secrecy along the way.

HARRIS: (As Bernard) That's why I lied about the fence.

BELZER: (As John Munch) OK, now I get it. You're saving your really good lies for some smarter cop. Is that it? I'm just a doughnut in the on-deck circle. Wait till the real guy gets here. Wait for that...

BIANCULLI: Richard Belzer played John Munch for seven years on "Homicide," then played the same role on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" for another 15 years until 2014. He also played Detective Munch in guest-star appearances on an absurdly varied list of other TV shows from "30 Rock" and "The X-Files" to "Arrested Development" and "The Wire." Terry Gross spoke with Richard Belzer early in his career. In 1987, she asked him about dealing with hecklers in his stand-up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: You must be used to handling absolutely everything and anything. For five years in the mid '70s, you were the emcee at Catch a Rising Star, a comedy club.

BELZER: Right.

GROSS: So you must have learned how to handle everything including the craziest hecklers.

BELZER: Yeah, well, when I first started, I didn't talk to the audience at all. I just introduced the acts. And then, as time went on, I realized that I had to address the audience and - asking people where they're from, what they're - about what they're wearing, about who they're with. And it just kind of evolves. And sometimes you discover - sometimes I initiate it, and sometimes there are hecklers. So there are all different kinds of hecklers. Some people are very innocent. They just want to be a part of the show, and they think they're helping the comedian. Some people are mean-spirited drunks who want to disrupt the show. Some people are disruptive without even knowing it. I mean, it's just everything you could possibly imagine - like relatives, I guess.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BELZER: It's a good analogy.

GROSS: You said sometimes you would initiate it. How so?

BELZER: Well, if I saw - if I come out on stage, I don't usually like to start with prepared remarks. I usually just come out and say hello to the audience. And then, if I see someone who looks interesting in the front row, a couple or a person, I'll ask them where they're from, and then, I'll ask them what they do, and then, I'll ask them all different kinds of questions to elicit responses and then ad-lib and improvise off of the information they give me.

GROSS: You've seen a lot of bad comics perform?

BELZER: Yes.

GROSS: What are some of the mistakes you've seen them made that you've learned from?

BELZER: Well, a lot of them make the mistake that I made when I first started, and that's to rush your material when you're not getting a laugh, to speed it up. And that's the death knell. That's the worst thing you can do, is to speed up the material. What I used to do, my fatal flaw, was I would get mad at the audience for not laughing, not thinking it was me. So I would get hostile towards the audience for not laughing. And you're just kind of built into this trap that I would put myself in and had to kind of verbally dance my way out of. But I soon realized that the thing to do is to take your time and not rush the material. I'd say that's the No. 1 rule.

GROSS: Richard, can I ask you to move about an inch back from the microphone?

BELZER: OK.

GROSS: Great. Thanks a lot. The P's are just popping a little bit.

BELZER: Sorry.

GROSS: No (laughter).

BELZER: (Imitating George H.W. Bush) Well, I didn't realize it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BELZER: (Imitating George H.W. Bush) But I thought the mic was in back of me. Mommy, could you move that mic for me? Thank you.

GROSS: You've done a lot of television, and I'm going to ask you about what was, I'm sure, the most dramatic moment for you, which is when you were hosting "Hot Properties" and your guests were Hulk Hogan and Mr. T...

BELZER: Yes.

GROSS: ...For WrestleMania.

BELZER: The fascist twins.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah. Well, you were nearly killed on that program.

BELZER: I was. I'm glad you found that humorous. But, no, it was one of the most bizarre events ever because I had them on the show. Someone on my staff said, we can get Mr. T and Hulk Hogan on the show. And I said, yeah, sure, right, great, 'cause I'm not really a big wrestling fan. I was when I was a kid, when it was Antonio Rocca (ph) and Ricki Starr and the Graham Brothers. I don't know if you remember those people.

GROSS: Yeah, and Haystacks Calhoun, I remember.

BELZER: Yeah, exactly. So then, it was more theatrical and taken for what it was. These guys, for some reason - I think it's steroids - they harden the arteries of the brain and fear of not being masculine because they pump themselves up. They become everything that they think they can do to become a man. And actually, they're antithetical to men because they have to go around beating people up to prove they're men.

So on my show, I saw - I met Hulk Hogan before the show. He was very nice to me. And during the show, for some reason, he got real crazy, and I asked him to demonstrate something on me. Now, I had had Mark Breland, who's an Olympic boxer, on my show. We did a demonstration. He didn't actually punch me. I did a lot of different things on the show where no one ever actually physically attacked me. So that was the last thing in my mind. And for some reason, he took upon himself to knock me out in his arm. He kind of crushed my head until I couldn't breathe.

GROSS: A stranglehold?

BELZER: Yeah. And then, he - it's called a front chinlock. And then, he dropped me to the floor while I was unconscious. And I hit the back of my head on the floor and woke up in a few seconds and jumped to my feet and went to a commercial. And then, I realized that there was - Niagara Falls was pouring out of the back of my head. And then, I went to the hospital, and I need stitches. So now I'm suing him for $5 million.

GROSS: When you were unconscious and you came to for a few seconds, did you really - I never saw this program. I never saw a tape of that particular show.

BELZER: Right.

GROSS: But when you came to it, did you actually say, we'll be back after this?

BELZER: Yes, I did. And my lawyer - not my lawyer. My doctor was amazed because I was in shock at the time. And I just sprang to my - first of all, when I was unconscious, I had a dream. And I was only out for about eight or 10 seconds. I had a - I was dreaming that I was late for something like, you know, the show or something. And little did I know I was dying on the floor of the studio. So I sprung to my feet, and I said, we'll be back after you-know-what 'cause I never say the word commercial. I always say, we're back after this or message or - so I had the temerity to do that. I guess show business was in my blood, only I didn't know it was going to be all over my jacket and the back of my head.

GROSS: (Laughter) Did you think you were dying?

BELZER: Well, he knocked me out so fast. It was very - he started squeezing my head, and I tried to signal him, but I couldn't even lift my arms. And then my brain said, check, please, because there was no oxygen going to my brain. So my brain wanted out, so my brain turned off, as brains do when you're being strangled.

GROSS: I'm probably cynical enough so that if I was watching at home, I would have thought, oh, I bet that was staged.

BELZER: Well, the amazing thing is - one of the reasons I'm suing is because a lot of people thought it was staged. Many people could see that it was real, but a lot of people thought it was fake because wrestling, by definition, is fake. But I can assure you it was real. And I have the scar to prove it and the lawsuit to prove it. And it was just a grotesque anomaly in show business.

BIANCULLI: Richard Belzer speaking to Terry Gross in 1987. More after a break - this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIKE POST'S "LAW AND ORDER")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1987 interview with actor and standup comic Richard Belzer, who died Sunday at age 78.

GROSS: Well, let me ask you about your life and how you got into comedy. Now, I know you grew up in a housing project.

BELZER: Yes.

GROSS: And I've read that you didn't have a lot of money when you were growing up.

BELZER: No.

GROSS: And I assume that you were one of the funny kids in the neighborhood.

BELZER: Yeah.

GROSS: Was that a kind of protective shield for you - being funny? Did that mean that you weren't going to be picked on by the toughest kids around?

BELZER: Well, it's interesting. My wit has saved me more than once. And I found when I was a kid that the tough guys - a lot of the tough guys in the school liked my wit. So I would hang around with some tough guys, and we would come across some other people, and I would, like, put them down, and they'd go to beat me up, and my friends would beat them up. So I never really had to get in any fights, really, because I would, like, kind of instigate a fight, and then Vinny or Rocco or Vito would do the rest.

GROSS: Instigate through verbal abuse.

BELZER: Yeah. I sound like a little fascist, don't I?

GROSS: Yes, you do.

BELZER: That's when I was a little - you know, I was young. It was 30 years ago as a young, skinny kid.

GROSS: Now, you've said in one of your routines that when you were young, your mother used to beat you and that you would try to tell her jokes to get her to stop.

BELZER: Right. Right. Well, she was the toughest audience I ever had.

GROSS: Yeah.

BELZER: And my kitchen was the toughest room I ever worked.

GROSS: Well, how true is that, though?

BELZER: Actually, it's quite literally true. I - it all - unfortunately, it didn't work as much as legend has it. But I - when I was a kid, I had a crew cut, or a zip, what they called then, very short hair. And I looked just like Jerry Lewis. And I used to do a Jerry Lewis impression. And sometimes my mother would get mad at me, and I'd do my Jerry Lewis shtick, and she'd laugh and forget to hit me. But I'd say that worked maybe two times out of 20. So she usually wound up hitting me anyway. So the material wasn't that strong.

GROSS: Now, you've also said in your routines that you were thrown out of every school that you went to. Does that include college? Were you thrown out of college?

BELZER: Yes, I was thrown out of college. It was funny because I - one of the reasons I was thrown out because I led a demonstration in 1964, before there were Vietnam War demonstrations. This was, like, the wimpiest demonstration. We wanted to have women be able to visit the boys' dorms or the boys visit the women's dorms, I forget. So I got all the guys in my dorm to, like, march over to the women's campus, you know, like, clapping our hands, you know? And the security guard - his name was Joe, and we all knew him - he came over to the crowd, the mob. And he said, all right, guys. Come on, let's go. Break it up. And we said, OK, Joe. And that was the demonstration.

(LAUGHTER)

BELZER: There was no bomb throwing. There was no Mario Savio. There was no...

GROSS: For this you got thrown out of college?

BELZER: Well, that was on my record, that, you know, I led a demonstration. I broke curfew. I, you know, had liquor in the dorm. You know, how bad can you be in 1964?

GROSS: Right. Right. Now, then you went into the Army.

BELZER: Yes. And I was thrown out of the army, too. Well, I was actually discharged under honorable conditions for being too funny to carry a gun.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BELZER: They said, wait a minute. This guy's too funny. He's too - which is almost true. Actually, I got out of the Army by feigning mental illness, if you will. I pretended that I was suicidal, and I staged this whole thing where I said I got beat up and my back was hurting, and they found out I was faking, and they sent me to the Jewish chaplain in the army. I didn't know there were Jewish - I thought Pat O'Brien was the - I didn't know Jews joined the army. I didn't know Jews were - let alone chaplains. And I went to this rabbi, and I said, Rabbi, because my sergeant said that you - you know, you got to go see your chaplain, Belzer, because you need help.

So I went to the chaplain. I said, Chaplain, with all due respect, I think I need to see a psychiatrist. And he said, you know, Freud was a Jew. And the reason he became a psychiatrist was to discover his Jewishness. You don't need a psychiatrist. You need to discover why you're a Jew. And he lectured me on kosher food and choirs and how I could sing in the Army Jewish choir and eat kosher food. And I said, really, Rabbi, I need to see a - he said, you have to - do you have a girlfriend? And I said, no. He said, did you ever have - I said, yeah. Was she Jewish? Good. Like, everything was revolved around Judaism, which was the farthest thing from my mind then. I just wanted to get out of the Army.

Finally, I was allowed to go to the psychiatrist, and I - having had a little college, I knew every freshman psychology phobia. So I said that I wet the bed, and I was suicidal. I hated my mother. I was afraid of women. I just did every cliche in psychology, and I got out.

GROSS: That's amazing.

BELZER: I hope no one's listening...

GROSS: That's probably one of your...

BELZER: ...From the Pentagon.

GROSS: ...One of your most convincing performances.

BELZER: Yeah. And I never do this on stage. Maybe I should.

GROSS: Did you ever think to yourself, what happens if I'm discovered, that this is just an act?

BELZER: What's that?

GROSS: When you were trying to get out of the Army and faking all this stuff.

BELZER: Well, I think that it's kind of, like, partially - you know, they knew that I was acting crazy, but I was crazy to do that in the first - it was kind of like that. You know, it was like...

GROSS: Right. If you could do this so well, who wants you around anyways?

BELZER: Exactly. It was like Kafka meets "Catch-22" or something.

GROSS: Now, you were talking about the chaplain in the Army who lectured you about...

BELZER: Charlie Chaplin.

GROSS: ...Lectured you about Judaism. I think the very first time I saw you perform was on "Saturday Night Live." And you were doing your impression of Bob Dylan in, like, a retirement center, singing in a Yiddish accent.

BELZER: Right, the 86-year-old Bob Dylan.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Now, I hate to ask questions like how did that idea come to you, but really, how did that idea come to you?

BELZER: Well, when I was a kid - I hate to say that Bob is that much older than me. Well, when I was a kid, when I was a teenager, and we started first getting into Bob Dylan and we - then we found out his real name is Zimmerman. And he's a Jew from Minnesota. And this was, like, a revelation to have a hero that's a Jew. So I said, if his name is Zimmerman, he must have had a bar mitzvah. So I fantasized what Bob Dylan's bar mitzvah must have been like, you know? (Imitating Bob Dylan in Hebrew).

GROSS: (Laughter).

BELZER: And then he gets older, you know? Oy, oy.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BELZER: Once upon a time, you dressed so fine. You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you?

(LAUGHTER)

BELZER: People called, said, beware, doll. You're bound to fall. You thought they was all kidding you, and so on.

GROSS: Who spoke Yiddish in your family?

BELZER: Actually, I just got back into Yiddish music. I've discovered these things. My - everyone in my family spoke Yiddish. But I resent the fact that they didn't share. They didn't teach me. They didn't teach my brother or my cousins. My parents would talk in Yiddish. My grandparents would talk in Yiddish. And there's a comedian who does a routine. I can't think of who it is, but where - and it's true. If I may borrow the routine without crediting the person, and that is that Jewish families had the habit - the adults would tell a joke. They'd be telling a joke in English. And then a kid would walk in the room. And then they do the punchline in Yiddish. They'd say, so the guy walks up to the maid. He opens the door. He sees that she has no clothes on. And then a kid walks in the room. And he goes, (speaking Yiddish).

GROSS: (Laughter).

BELZER: And you don't know what the punch - it was the most frustrating thing I've ever - I still resent my uncles to this day for doing that to me. And I wish I could remember the comedian that did that. I guess, maybe, it was Robert Klein. But that's not my routine. But it's a true story.

GROSS: You know, since it was the older people in your family who spoke Yiddish, did you think that when you grew up, you'd automatically know the language?

BELZER: That's funny because I have a theory that everyone - when they get old, no matter what religion they are, they have a Jewish accent.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BELZER: Even Irish people, you know? They get to be past 65. I'm going to go to the store now because - I'm in the store? Good because I can - hello? You know, everyone - Italians - everybody, for some reason, they get a Jewish accent. Don't ask me why.

GROSS: Oh, gosh.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Earlier in your career, you were the comic that used to warm up the audiences for "Saturday Night Live?"

BELZER: Yeah, I started doing that the first few shows, actually.

GROSS: I didn't realize they'd even have a warm-up comic there. What kind of stuff did you have to do?

BELZER: Well, it was kind of thrilling in those days to be a part of that because, you know, regardless of what anyone says, a lot of people didn't know how this was going to be accepted. This was like giving the kids the key to the store to have all these, in quotes, "anti-establishment people" have a TV show on a network. And so they asked me to do some sketches and do the warm-ups. I just kind of did what I did in nightclubs. I talked to the audience. You know, I did some of my material. But I tried to improvise and ad lib as much as I could, asking people where they're from. And it was fascinating doing that in a television studio, not a nightclub. So it was an interesting situation to be in.

GROSS: You know, one of the problems nowadays is that special interests are so fragmented. And there's only a fairly narrow number of things that everybody knows in common, like the records everybody knows or the books everybody's read. Do you ever want to say something in one of your routines that you know you can't say because only, like, three people are going to get the joke?

BELZER: Well, that's one of my jobs (laughter). I like to talk about esoteric things - I mean, not 90% of my act. But there are a lot of things in my act over the years that have been things that I've seen or read that is not open to the general public - or literary references or things about science, or things about all different kinds of subjects that I feel compelled to talk about. And without being patronizing, sometimes I think I can educate the audience. And if I mention something that they never heard of, a literary reference or a line from a play or a new scientific discovery, then maybe they'll go and find out about it. So I'm not inhibited. I know a lot of comedians try to be as broad based and as commercial and as accessible as possible, and as least offensive as they can be. And for good or ill, I never subscribed to that theory.

GROSS: Are you in stand-up for the long haul? Or would you eventually like to get out of it and just go into acting?

BELZER: You know, James Cagney - somebody once asked James Cagney what he would like to be remembered as, and he said a hoofer, because he was a dancer. And obviously, he's one of the greatest actors in the history of film. I'd like to be remembered as a stand-up comic or thought of as a stand-up comic, even though I'm very interested in acting in films and doing radio and records and some music things. But I'm basically a stand-up comedian and proud of it.

BIANCULLI: Richard Belzer speaking to Terry Gross in 1987. For more than 20 years, on a variety of TV shows, he played the same character, Detective John Munch. Belzer died Sunday at age 78 at his home in the south of France. It was the home he had bought with proceeds from his out-of-court settlement against wrestler Hulk Hogan, who had injured him during a wrestling demonstration on a TV show. Belzer referred to his home as the Hulk Hogan Estate and Chez Hogan. After a break, we remember pro baseball player and sportscaster Tim McCarver. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BALLAD OF BOB DYLAN")

BELZER: But there isn't one song to explain the mystery of Bob Dylan. And I would like to nominate this song for that very purpose, "The Ballad Of Bob Dylan."

(Singing) Well, I'm a skinny Jew, one of the few from Minnesota. They had a quota. Came to the big city, dreamed that I was Walter Mitty, wrote folk songs that I thought were witty. Someone said I'd be the next big thing until they heard me sing. But it was too late to change their minds because the contracts were already signed.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "THE BIG ONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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