FEW stand-up comics end up on cop shows, but Richard Belzer is an original in every sense of the word.
Since he began playing Detective John Munch, the cop in shades (he never takes them off) in Homicide: Life on the Street, 1993-99, he has become the first actor to have played the same character in seven different primetime series: Homicide, Law & Order, The X Files, The Beat, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Law & Order: Trial By Jury and Arrested Development.
"It's like a dream for me, I never would have predicted it," the grey-haired 62-year-old says. "I was just really lucky to get the role initially. I started as an actor before I did stand-up, but I'd really become known for the comedy."
A resident of France, Belzer is due to break his own record by going to Paris in October to act in an eighth show as Munch. He guest stars in the new French-language production of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, opposite Vincent Perez as the top cop.
There's also a Munch Muppet on Sesame Street. The Muppets created a bunch of cops called The Missing Letter Unit and they're searching for the letter M. Munch is one of the squad, taking his incarnations to nine.
What makes the character so attractive? "Well, Munch has a particular personality," Belzer says. "He doesn't grow that much! He has his own world view that he has settled into - that's part of the charm of the character. You never know what he's going to say, but you know he's going to be contrary. He's into conspiracy; he questions everything; he reads a lot; he's cynical."
Which is very much like Belzer himself. "Well, he's depressed and I'm not. "He's a policeman and I'm not. And I'm happily married and he's not. Otherwise, he's very close to what I'd be, if I were a cop.
He's distant, opinionated; radical when he was younger. He doesn't trust authority. He reads a lot. He's always got a dark joke about some grim situation. In those ways, he's close to me and the writers know it. And they write to that."
The conspiracy element is pure Belzer. He is the author of UFOs, JFK and Elvis: Conspiracies You Don't Have to Be Crazy to Believe. Yet only his third wife, actor Harlee McBride, can separate Belzer from Munch and vice-versa.
Belzer kicked off in showbiz with the Groove Tube cult movie and his wit has infiltrated all media from radio to off-Broadway and movies: Scarface, The Big Picture, Prince For A Day, Get On The Bus. The stand-up comic, actor and author mines his material from previous experiences as teacher, census-taker, jewellery salesman, dockworker and paperboy turned reporter. Surviving testicular cancer in 1984 even resulted in an album and an HBO show, Another Lone Nut.
He wears the dark glasses, because as a kid he wanted to be a beatnik jazz musician. "I never take them off. Well, the other day at a French photo shoot, the cameramen were all yelling: Reechar! Reechar!
Then this one guy yells: Reechar, drop your sunglasses. And I said: I will, if you drop your pants. I always say that. To my astonishment, this guy dropped his trousers, so I lowered my glasses for one second. Or two."
How did he react when he discovered his cop partner in the Special Victims Unit would be a rap singer?
"Ice T is also an actor. I was very excited because he is very controversial; he speaks his mind. He's very smart and brings a whole other element to the show. When we film in the streets, it's him the crowd come for. In fact we're perfect partners because we both look for the same thing in the scripts: how many days off!"
What sets SVU apart from the other Law & Order shows is that it is character-driven, and this suits Belzer's inclinations. "We're a little different. The other shows are more about the crimes. That gives the audience different choices. It's great for an actor to have great lines written that illuminate the character - as well as solving the crime. It's such good writing, year after year. Unbelievable!"
This version of original article by Helen Barlow has been re-edited.... See Helen Barlow, September 06, 2006 12:00am Cat photo taken in France by Kat-Renée Kittel.