Few people care about the truth and pursue it as stubbornly as Richard Belzer, who died recently at the age of 78. Belzer has spent most of his career honing a tough character, edged with a caustic skepticism and a wry smile, which has defined everything he’s done: his routine as a stand-up comedian, his two-decade run playing Detective John Munch, and his work as an author of conspiracy theory books. Beneath his wise cynicism, however, Belzer harbored hope that the world could become a better place, especially for the most vulnerable among us.
“He did not suffer fools quietly.”
“He hated bullies and he was careful of the little guy,” Warren Leight, former “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” showrunner, told Salon. “He did not suffer fools quietly.”
Belzer’s anti-authoritarian streak developed early and ran deep. His mother abused him. He was expelled from every school he went to. The army released him after less than a year of service. “I was released on honorable terms for being too funny to carry a gun,” he told an interviewer.
Before being fired, Belzer worked as a radio intercept operator. His job, which required top-secret clearance, was to monitor and crack codes transmitted by enemies during the Cold War. The simple fact that there were forces at work to hide the truth from people, and that those with the right skills and knowledge could detect and decode that truth, stayed with him for the rest of his life.
After failing college and stumbling across a number of dead-end jobs, Belzer decided to give acting a try. Between the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, it was time for cynical material. George Carlin and Robert Klein, both at the height of their popularity, had ditched Borscht Belt’s old mother-in-law gags in favor of smart, edgy comedy, and Belzer was inspired by them.
“In the 1960s, for the first time, Americans suspected the government of lying and disagreed with institutions on issues like birth control,” Belzer wrote in “How to be a Stand-Up Comic.” “So comedians were making fun of things that were strictly taboo until then.”
American actor and comedian Richard Belzer performing his stand-up comedy routine at Caroline’s Comedy Club on May 4, 1988 in New York, New York. (Catherine McGann/Getty Images)At the start of the comedy club boom, Belzer paid his dues by playing sets at The Improv and Catch a Rising Star, where he eventually became the emcee. His act included observational jokes, impersonations and numerous references to his Jewish background, but the lion’s share of his stage time went to clever political comedy.
“Our current president is from Hollywood,” Belzer joked of Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s. “He’s an actor. He’s not really the president, he’s playing the president. He’s the host guest of the country for four years.”
Working at a breakneck pace on stage, Belzer could go from nerd social commentary to alley humor in the blink of an eye. “According to the Jewish religion, when you do a bar mitzvah, you become a man,” he once joked on an HBO special. “Now when you’re a kid on the street and they say, ‘Are you a man already? it means, ‘Have you had sex yet?’ So I think what a great religion. You’re 13, you’re getting fucked. “
Belzer’s character – a cynical, wise-cracking conspiracy theorist – bore a strong resemblance to his comedic stage persona.
At Catch a Rising Star, Belzer never knew how much time he would have to bridge between comedians when working as an MC, so he mastered crowd work, talked to audience members, and added live tracks. based on their comments. The practice helped him develop lightning-fast comedic reflexes. The Hecklers had no chance against him. Once, when an audience member sarcastically shouted “Nice jacket,” Belzer immediately and mercilessly replied, “I got it for sale in your mother’s vagina.”
In 1993, Belzer’s career took a left turn when he was chosen as Det. John Munch in the gritty detective series “Homicide: Life on the Streets”, a show with non-fiction roots that attempted to expose the sad reality of the work of the Baltimore police. Belzer’s character – a cynical, wise-cracking conspiracy theorist – bore a strong resemblance to his comedic stage persona. Episode after episode, Belzer pulled off the feat of acting without appearing to act, showing up on camera in his true self.
American actors Richard Belzer, Melissa Leo, Reed Diamond and Clark Johnson on the set of the television series Homicide: Life on the Street. (Evan Hurd/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)“On screen, he didn’t scream for attention,” Leight said. “He just drew you to him.”
He described himself as a conspiracy theorist, a term he said was coined by the CIA “to discourage people from seeking the truth”.
Thanks to Belzer’s portrait, Det. Munch became such an iconic character that after seven seasons on “Homicide,” he joined the fictional NYPD on “Law & Order: SVU” for a decade and a half. Amazingly, that was just the start of what became an epic string of appearances for Munch. Belzer has taken his character on a quest for the truth and closing a case across an unprecedented number of TV shows, networks and franchises, appearing on “The Wire,” “The X-Files,” ” 30 Rock” and “Arrested Development”, among several other shows. Munch is one of the oldest characters in television history.
Belzer’s growing fame gave him a platform, and he used that platform to address the body politic, writing or co-writing five books on subjects close to his heart, from extraterrestrial cover-ups to mysterious aircraft disappearances. He has described himself as a conspiracy theorist, a term he says was coined by the CIA “to discourage people from seeking the truth”, as he wrote in his book “Corporate Conspiracies”.
Belzer felt that much of the world’s suffering stems from our collective refusal to acknowledge the corruption that surrounds us. He sincerely wanted to end this suffering, and to that end he was committed to solving cases both on and off screen. He investigated the assassinations of President Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Fred Hampton, and Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as the death of Marilyn Monroe. He studied the evidence for the existence of UFOs and researched the hidden health hazards associated with industrial chemicals.
Actor, comedian and author Richard Belzer poses with a copy of the book ‘Dead Wrong: Straight Facts On The Country’s Most Controversial Cover-Ups’ by Richard Belzer and David Wayne during his Friars Club Book Warming at the New York Friars Club on 5 October , 2012 in New York. (Taylor Hill/FilmMagic/Getty Images)“I read six newspapers a day,” Belzer wrote in “UFOs, JFK, and Elvis.” “I’m still hoping that someday one of them might give me something other than all the news the CIA sees fit to print. Big luck.”
With his dying breath, Belzer challenged death’s ultimate authority.
As obsessed as he was with the search for truth, there was much more to Belzer, whom Leight described as “warm and generous”.
“His conspiracy theories were sometimes the subject of a locker room or a riff on set,” Leight said. “But what sticks in my mind is his arm around my shoulder, being called ‘kiddo’, being told I was welcome.”
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According to Belzer’s longtime friend, writer Bill Scheft, the comedian, actor and author’s last words were “F**k you, motherf**ker.” How with his dying breath, Belzer challenged the ultimate authority of death. How fitting, too, that in doing so he expressed a sentiment that could easily have been pulled straight from his nightclub act or delivered by Det. Munch to some perp allowed in handcuffs.
“We are not powerless,” Belzer wrote in “Corporate Conspiracies.” “We have many democratic vehicles at our disposal. Let’s use them. Let’s take back control of this Republic – get it out of the hands of the megacorporations who can now literally buy their influence from the politicians – and put it back in the hands of Us, the People where he belongs.”
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