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One On 1: Richard Belzer, A True Believer In Comic Relief

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Richard Belzer, best known for his portrayal of Detective John Munch, recently sat down with NY1's Budd Mishkin to discuss his career both on stage and on the small screen.

We can picture Richard Belzer on stage. We can obviously picture him as television's Detective John Munch. But can you picture Richard Belzer in the army?

For a few months in the early 1960s, he was a soldier.

"I was discharged under honorable conditions for being non-adaptable to military service. And then there was an asterisk that said, 'too funny to carry a gun.' No I'm just kidding but essentially, yea I think that's what they meant," says Belzer.

Where once he did hundreds of shows a year, now Belzer only occasionally works as a standup, as he did in January at Town Hall sharing the bill with his longtime friend Richard Lewis.

"I still give my all, I love to perform and make the audience laugh but I don't have this investment that my existence is predicated on this particular show like it was when I started. You know, if I bombed, the rare times that I did bomb, it was abject depression," says Belzer.

The comic, known as The Belz, first gained prominence as part of the anti-establishment comedy crowd of the 70's. But he always had a reverence for the old time comics at the Friar's Club.

"Henny Youngman would be here every day. And everyone came here. So, it was kind of like sports, you know, where if you're a young baseball player, you don't denigrate the old Willie Mays or Duke Snyder. So this is kind of the equivalent to that," says Belzer.

When Belzer was first doing standup, drugs were a part of his act and his life. Now, of course, he is known as a police officer.

"The irony does not escape me," says Belzer.

Aside from his appearance on Elmopalooza, Detective John Munch has the honor of being the only fictional character played by a single actor to appear on eight different television shows, including "Law & Order."

"I've heard from police all over the country that they love the show and they love Munch. Munch is kind of the court jester that a lot of homicide divisions have, because they see such horrific crimes and they always welcome one guy who can crack a joke to break the tension," says Belzer.

Because the "Law & Order" series is carried all over the world, Munch has an international presence which Belzer could not have dreamed of as a young struggling comic.

"I go to little villages in France and I get asked for my autograph. It is astounding," says Belzer.

The line between Belzer and Munch is beyond blurry. He's written a novel in his own voice, entitled "I Am Not a Cop." He says he gets rides from cabbies and cops just for playing one on TV.

And occasionally, the convergence of reality and celebrity becomes very, very real.

"One time when I was filming, 'Homicide,' and I had my badge out and my gun out and all these cops around me. A shoplifter ran around the corner and saw these cops and surrendered to me, and then realized, 'oh sh**, that's Munch'," says Belzer.

Richard Belzer was comfortable playing other characters long before he became Detective John Munch. His standup act has always been filled with impersonations, like a very elderly Bob Dylan.

"Once upon a time, you dressed so fine, you threw the bums a dime, didn't you," says Belzer, in his Dylan-inspired portrayal.

But occasionally, those who he is parodying come by after the show, like Jack Nicholson.

"Jack came backstage and I was like, 'uh oh,' and as he came over right in my face and leaned over in to my ear and said, 'I closed my eyes and I thought it was me'," says Belzer.

When Belzer was growing up in Connecticut, being funny was no laughing matter.

"Well I always said that the toughest room I ever worked was my kitchen, because my mother was kind of physical and sometimes I'd make her laugh and she wouldn't hit me," says Belzer.

"I would do a Jerry Lewis thing and sometimes that would dilute her anger and she'd crack a smile and not hit me. So I told Jerry years ago, I told Jerry, 'you saved me a lot of beatings'," says Belzer.

Mishkin: "Did it play a role in your drive to make it as a comic?"

Belzer: "Well I tangentially, peripherally. I think. I like to think that I'm funny and that I would have been funny no matter who my parents were, but I do admit that certain things contribute to forcing the comedy out as a defense mechanism."

When he was 18, his mother died of cancer. Four years later, his father committed suicide.

"That's one thing I lament or regret, that he never saw me perform. But I, psychologically, was the stage a refuge from that? I don't know, I think I certainly felt strong and safe on stage," says Belzer.

After stints in college in Massachusetts, the army, loading trucks, substitute teaching and being a census taker, Belzer came to New York and started doing standup.

He was in "The Groove Tube," a movie that attained cult status for its counter culture, anti-establishment message. He lived on his brother's couch on Prince Street, played clubs, didn't make much and loved it.

"It was a great life because we knew that this is what we wanted to do. It's show business. Even if its just working a little dive, it's still people, you know, so there was a very kind of gruff romanticism about it all," says Belzer.

He warmed up the audiences and occasionally appeared in the early years of Saturday Night Live. But he was never made a cast member.

Mishkin: "In the early 80's, you're already known as the comic's comic."

Belzer: "That means that everyone knows who you are but you can't pay the rent, that's what that means."

He also started to see his contemporaries getting TV series and movies.

"I wouldn't say I was bitter but I was distressed by it. I mean, I kept going. I was just kind of mystified. But in some ways I was my own worst enemy. I was not the most diplomatic person in the world. People were afraid of what I'd say," says Belzer.

With more comedy clubs and cable specials, it was a fertile time for comics. But two of Belzer's friends didn't survive the fast pace and fame. Freddie Prinze committed suicide. John Belushi overdosed.

"I was with Mickey Rourke the other day and we looked at each other and said, 'we're still here,' and we are. But we all lost a lot of people to drugs and AIDS, firearms," says Belzer.

At around the same time, Belzer survived a battle with testicular cancer.

"I wish I could say that it changed me and made me a better person. Maybe it made me a little stronger and be a little bit more careful about who I hang out with. But, I don't recommend getting cancer to have a personal epiphany," says Belzer.

Belzer has survived, to enjoy a life with his wife and two stepdaughters, a house in France, a television character seen all over the world and the ability to get back on stage only when he wants.

Memories of earlier career struggles, friends who didn't survive and a painful childhood are still vivid, but they are just that -- memories.

"My thing was to make everyone laugh, to diffuse any situation. I just reflexively found the humor, the irreverent humor in virtually every situation," says Belzer.

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