'Law & Order: SVU': Richard Belzer on Munch's retirement and why the time is right

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After playing Detective John Munch in a record 10 shows since 1993, Richard Belzer leaves the force on a special episode of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" Wednesday (Oct. 16).

Belzer, who plays the sardonic detective, and Warren Leight, "SVU's" executive producer, spoke exclusively with Zap2it explaining why and how he will exit.

"It's painful," Leight says in the lobby of a Times Square theater, where he was overseeing a forthcoming episode. "In the real world, which we try to very hard to simulate, NYPD has mandatory retirement before your 63rd birthday. And we were trying to figure out how to deal with it. The reason NYPD does it is because you can't have 65-year-old guys running after guys. It is a hard and fast rule.

"It creates some pathos and sadness," Leight says of losing this mainstay character. "I love writing for Munch. I started out as a comedy writer and he's closest, in some ways, to my voice."

Munch, the whippet-thin, smarter-than-everyone-in-the-room character, got his start on "Homicide: Life in the Street" in 1993. His first crossover came on the original "Law & Order" in 1996, and he went on to play the character on "Law & Order: Trial by Jury," "The X-Files," "Arrested Development," "The Beat," "30 Rock," "The Wire" and even "Sesame Street" in addition to "SVU." Belzer holds a record for appearing on the most shows as the same character.

Munch won't necessarily be gone forever. He will go to the D.A.'s office as an investigator, affording him the opportunity to return and contribute to cases.

"So we are leaving the door open," Belzer says. "I have been playing Munch for 21 years."

James Arness still holds the record for total appearances as the same character with 635 "Gunsmoke" episodes, compared to Munch's 462 in the various shows. (TV seasons were traditionally one-third longer in the medium's early days). Arness and Kelsey Grammer both logged 20 years playing the same characters, but no one comes close to Belzer's crossover record.
 
"The most flattering was to have a Munch Muppet," Belzer says. "I was in 'Elmopalooza' and 'Law & Order: Special Letters Unit' [on 'Sesame Street']. That shows the demographic reach of the show -- that 'Sesame Street' could do something with it. The fan base has no limit.

"The way the character was created and partially based fell into the groove of my personality," Belzer continues. "The writers would write more like I am. He is very close to how I used to be. It is very pleasing and luxurious to have a character just like you."

Munch, who has been married three times and had been a hippie, is distrustful of government. That bit of irony, a cop questioning authority, helped make him such a good detective, Leight says. 

"Of all of the cops, he is most interested in civil liberties and the law," Leight says.

Incidentally, Belzer is not retiring at 69. He is already in California, working on a web series,  a television project, writing two books and planning to speak, via Skype, as the keynote speaker at an annual convention of Kennedy assassination theorists.

"Sounds like a great place to meet chicks," Leight says to Belzer.

Belzer is pleased with how Munch exits.

"I could have knocked up a Martian," he jokes. Instead, cops who worked with the character over the years roast him at Bamonte's in Brooklyn. 

"The episode begins with a farewell dinner," Leight says. "Richard Belzer hosting a roast is in his wheelhouse. We have 15 minutes of him ribbing everyone."

While all of that can't be used on the one-hour drama, Leight says the network will figure out a way to post what does not get on the air.

Among those who bid Belzer goodbye is an ex-wife, played by Carol Kane, and characters who have worked with him on other shows, including Clark Johnson from "Homicide." 

Not that Belzer is Munch, but he initially balked at the fuss, and said he wasn't going to linger after the last scene was shot. Then, former crew showed up and the gang hung out for another four hours, closing the joint.

"He's an unbelievably kind and soulful guy," Leight says. 

Leight reveals a very sweet spoiler. The series received permission to use clips from "Homicide," and they show Munch from when he started.

Over the last couple of seasons, Munch's role has declined. While Detectives Fin Tutuola ( Ice-T) and Amanda Rollins ( Kelli Giddish) partner, and Detectives Olivia Benson ( Mariska Hargitay) and Nick Amaro ( Danny Pino) work together, Munch has served more as the second in command under Capt. Donald Cragen ( Dann Florek).

Leight planned when to use this emotional episode so it would not get lost in the season.

"In general, 'Law & Order' doesn't handle closure well," Leight says.

Remember how the beloved Jerry Orbach as Lennie Briscoe basically packed his life into a box and walked off? How Lt. Anita Van Buren, the formidable S. Epatha Merkerson, had the cops raise a beer to her? Not exactly big send-offs. The show that started it all, "Law & Order," was summarily canceled with nothing tied up.

Considering this track record, giving fans a chance to see Belzer ease into the next chapter is lovely. 

 At the very end of the episode, Leight reveals, Cragen says to the veteran cop, "It's been a hell of a run, Detective Munch."

With that, fans should lift their glasses and toast him. Belzer's and Munch's "SVU" departure airs at 9 p.m. ET Wednesday on NBC.

Photo/Video credit: NBC
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