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

NEW YORK — Richard Belzer, the longtime stand-up comedian who became one of TV's most indelible detectives as John Munch in Homicide: Life on the Street and Law & Order: SVU, has died. He was 78.

Belzer died Sunday at his home in Bozouls in southern France, his longtime friend Bill Scheft told The Hollywood Reporter. Comedian Laraine Newman first announced his death on Twitter. The actor Henry Winkler, Belzer's cousin, wrote "Rest in peace Richard."

For more than two decades and across 10 series — even including appearances on 30 Rock and Arrested Development — Belzer played the wise-cracking, acerbic homicide detective prone to conspiracy theories. Belzer first played Munch on a 1993 episode of Homicide and last played him in 2016 on Law & Order: SVU.

Belzer never auditioned for the role. After hearing him on The Howard Stern Show, executive producer Barry Levinson brought the comedian in to read for the part.

"I would never be a detective. But if I were, that's how I'd be," Belzer once said. "They write to all my paranoia and anti-establishment dissidence and conspiracy theories. So it's been a lot of fun for me. A dream, really."

From that unlikely beginning, Belzer's Munch would become one of television's longest-running characters and a sunglasses-wearing presence on the small screen for more than two decades. In 2008, Belzer published the novel I Am Not a Cop! with Michael Ian Black. He also helped write several books on conspiracy theories, about things like President John F. Kennedy's assassination and Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

"He made me laugh a billion times," his longtime friend and fellow stand-up Richard Lewis said on Twitter.

Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Belzer was drawn to comedy, he said, during an abusive childhood in which his mother would beat him and his older brother, Len. "My kitchen was the toughest room I ever worked," Belzer told People magazine in 1993.

After being expelled from Dean Junior College in Massachusetts, Belzer embarked on a life of stand-up in New York in 1972. At Catch a Rising Star, Belzer became a regular. He made his big-screen debut in Ken Shapiro's 1974 film The Groove Tube, a TV satire co-starring Chevy Chase, a film that grew out of the comedy group Channel One that Belzer was a part of.

Before Saturday Night Live changed the comedy scene in New York, Belzer performed with John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray and others on the National Lampoon Radio Hour. In 1975, he became the warm-up comic for the newly launched SNL. While many cast members quickly became famous, Belzer's roles were mostly smaller cameos. He later said SNL creator Lorne Michaels reneged on a promise to work him into the show.

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The Associated Press