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Detective Mensch Actor: A dark comic with a sweetheart of a soul, Richard Belzer has found a new life with 'Homicide.'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"THE BELZ: Act One" FADE IN.

INTERIOR: COMEDY CLUB/WASHINGTON -- NIGHT

Easy, babe. First we got to steer clear of Dupont Circle. Yeah, it's Friday night and you're missing "Homicide," but Richard Belzer is doing stand-up comedy at the Improv, somewhere in unparkable Washington.

"He came a long way to entertain you," the opening act announces at 11: 30. Then Belzer dawns, a reed in black with a face Keith Richards would envy. Shades mask Belzer's baby browns. Yeah, I really broke my ass to be here.

Belzer came all the way from Baltimore, where a role on the NBC drama "Homicide" has transformed his career. I play Detective John Munch, and I'm having the time of my life, Belzer says at the Improv.

In "Homicide's" one-hour plays, John Munch is a one-man Greek Chorus. "He says what everyone else is thinking," says executive producer Tom Fontana. "He just talks the truth." Munch is rude, insensitive and would be shot dead by his own if he wasn't so damn right all the time.

And Munch, bless his carping heart, has delivered Richard Belzer to Baltimore. The 52-year-old actor and comedian has become a Charm City fixture: His mug is on coffee mugs, he shares the air with Marc Steiner, he even lights up Baltimore's Washington Monument at Christmas. Belzer spreads himself thinner supporting local causes from public radio to private hospitals.

He's everywhere. There, he's walking along Thames Street. No, you go up to him and tell him you love the show. He probably gets that all the time. He just looks like he belongs on "X-Files." Well, babe, you took too long because there he goes ...

L Right before our eyes, Richard Belzer has turned the corner.

INTERIORS: EXPLORERS CLUB/HARBOR COURT HOTEL: AFTERNOON

"Our first flowers in bloom," says Harlee McBride, peeling through a photo album. Her husband of 12 years, Richard Belzer, is the family photographer; McBride is the woman in the hat, pictured often in their French jardin. By the looks of it, Belzer is wild about McBride and Old English roses. His photography is downright sunny.

L Owning a home in France must do this to a road-tested cynic.

"I know," McBride says, "it's so un-him." Belzer's reputation is restored by a Belzer photograph of "The Big Book of Conspiracies." (Tip: Don't get him started on the Warren Commission.)

Deep in the jungle of the Explorers Club, a glass of Silverado wine and a champagne cocktail appear. McBride air-lifts two walnuts from the nut bowl; she's read somewhere that walnuts contain a cancer-fighting agent. Belzer successfully slugged his way through testicular cancer in 1983, so pass them walnuts.

Belzer witnessed friends John Belushi and Freddie Prinze self-destruct on drugs, but it was cancer that seized his attention. Radiation treatments can make a man switch from cocaine & co. to yoga. Belzer calls cancer a cosmic slap in the face. The point is he changed his act.

"No matter what happens, his will is so strong," McBride says. "It's his best feature."

Belzer and McBride met a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Los Angeles, 1981. It was a simpler time, a time before police recognized Belzer from TV. Actress Harlee McBride was doing Ford commercials and free theater. Nothing great. She made a soft-porn movie called "Young Lady Chatterly" and she was pictured in Playboy. That wasn't the ticket, either.

At 31 and divorced, "I was trying to find out what I like to do alone," McBride says. "I like to laugh is what I like."

No better place than the comedy clubs, where Robin Williams, Steve Martin and Richard Lewis were working. A friend told her: Harlee, you gotta meet Richard Belzer. "They referred to him as 'The King,' " she says. Well, "I didn't come to meet some struggling comedian."

But bring me a bottle of champagne, and we'll see, she said. What McBride saw was a twice-divorced comic with a perm. "I thought he looked like an accountant."

"So, you're a comedian," she began. "Are you funny?"

"Are you beautiful?" Belzer said. His timing was perfect.

All right, so he's funny and quick, McBride thought. The next scene is her West Hollywood apartment, where friends have crashed. It's just funny Belzer and beautiful McBride having cocktails. "I told him the beds are full, and he gave me a look that was so sweet," she says. "Then he gave me a little hug, just a

little hug to say it's OK."

She hugged back and "we melted into each other's arms." Belzer is this sweetheart of a soul, McBride says.

"That's a jackpot for most women," she says. "He just wasn't successful at the time."

INTERIORS COMEDY CLUB/MANHATTAN: NIGHT, LATE.

In the early 1970s, 20 years before Munch, Richard Belzer was simply known as No. 12. He was the 12th nobody auditioning to emcee at Rick Newman's club on First Avenue between 77th and 78th in Manhattan. Belzer was asked back for the next seven years, and the main room at Catch a Rising Star became Belzer's Court.

Every millennium, God delivers a shipment of funny souls. And Newman was there to catch them in his "Studio 54 of the Comedy World." The A-list included: Belushi, Gilda Radner, Williams, Jay Leno, Prinze and Newman's main man, Richard Belzer.

"He just stood out," Newman says. We're all drawn to the Dark Side, with its smart and sexy angles. Belzer nailed the part. "Go figure, with that face."

A typical Belzer night at the Catch started around 9 p.m. and ended around 3 a.m. Sometimes six nights a week. For seven years. Belzer stayed late and worked hard at comedy school. He knocked over tables to spar with hecklers. His routines included a Mick Jagger impersonation and "Menachem Begin on Acid." Belzer was politically incorrect before the term was minted.

Maybe his in-your-face comedy kept him from "breaking out." Ah, but the memories, Newman says. One night Belushi was belting out his Joe Cocker impersonation, when Williams and Belzer decided to sing back-up.

Real singers, such as David Bowie and Warren Zevon, were big Belzer fans.

"They used to almost have to carry me out on a stretcher, I was laughing so hard at his act," says Zevon, who invited Belzer to join him on tour. Just a couple of excitable boys loose in America.

Belzer started going places. He appeared in "The Groove Tube," a 1972 cult classic that also featured Chevy Chase's movie debut. He was the co-host of a morning radio show in New York called "Brink and Belzer." And, in 1975, he warmed up audiences for a new variety show called "Saturday Night Live." But Belzer always came home to Catch a Rising Star, where a warm mike waited for him. Seven years is a long gig. Many of Belzer's peers had moved out and up. Belzer had become such a successful cult hit he nearly went broke.

Was his destiny to be forever respected and forever unknown? His options were ugly.

Go back to being a dock worker, truck driver or census taker? Go back to Connecticut, where he had written obits and covered Rotary Club meetings for the Bridgeport Post? Go back to the beginning -- his parents' kitchen in a Bridgeport housing project?

"I had to make my mom laugh or I'd get my ass kicked by her," Belzer told People magazine in 1993. "Our kitchen was the toughest room I ever worked."

His mother, Frances Belzer, died in 1964. Charles Belzer, his father, killed himself four years later. His son was 22 and didn't know what hit him.

Turning to comedy saved him, friend Rick Newman says.

A star was born at Catch a Rising Star, but it was time for Belzer to leave the nest. He chipped away through the 1980s, appearing in movies such as "Night Shift," "Author! Author!" and "Scarface." He was a host for Fox's "The Late Show" and starred in his own HBO comedy special. In 1986, Belzer appeared on the first "Comic Relief." He did his stand-up on Carson and Letterman.

Still, McBride kept her day job as a secretary at Disneyland. The real world, as anyone knows, is no safe bet.

INTERIOR: FELLS POINT/ROW HOUSE -- MORNING.

In 1992, a Baltimore-based drama called "Homicide: Life on the Street" headed into production. Every part had been cast except for the opinionated, ex-hippie named John Munch. "You got to have a hunk," the NBC brass told executive producer Tom Fontana. One fine morning, executive producer Barry Levinson heard Richard Belzer romping on the radio with Howard Stern. He liked what he heard. Belzer, an opinionated ex-hippie, read and read for the part of Munch.

When the NBC brass called again, Fontana broke the news. Well, Belzer's great, Tom, but ... he's not a hunk.

"We're aware of that," Fontana replied.

Munch's debut was auspicious. Andre Braugher, like 42 million others, watched as the first show aired after the Super Bowl in 1993. The Cowboys had finished devouring the Bills, when Munch let rip his "I'm not Montel Williams!" riff.

"That made me sit up," says Braugher, who plays Detective Frank Pembleton.

Since that Super Sunday, Belzer has had his moments. But he has rarely commanded center stage in this ensemble cast the way Braugher and others have. Belzer works the edges. Tomorrow night's episode, however, showcases Munch -- from his Pikesville childhood to the murder of his high school sweetheart. It's arguably Belzer's finest performance.

"We've established other backgrounds, but we've never looked back into his past. What made Munch is fascinating," says Anya Epstein, who often writes for Munch from the Fells Point rowhouse that serves as the show's den of writers.

"To see him just as a jester would be a disservice," Epstein says. "He's the Jewish presence on this show. He knows what it feels like to be both on the inside and outside."

David Simon, who wrote the book on which the show is based and writes for the show, says Munch is more than a fun character. He's deceptively useful.

"Munch," Simon says, "is a great vehicle for writers to introduce the outside world into the self-contained world of the squad room. Here's a guy who still has this window on the world -- although maybe it's a little cracked."

Munch doesn't define himself by his job like, say, Frank does. "People ask me 'Is Munch a bad detective?' He's not tearing things up, but when I'm watching him, I'm seeing a guy like the detectives I knew," Simon says.

John Munch could be the most well-adjusted cop on the show.

It's a scary thought.

INTERIOR: FELLS POINT/BAR, COFFEE HOUSE -- EVENING.

The Thames Street tavern, site of tonight's "Homicide" get-together, is like a scene in John Munch's bar: Don't look, the evil Luther Mahoney is knocking down a cold one. Luther's nemesis, Meldrick Lewis, foolishly has his back to Luther. Detective Mike Kellerman busts in. Handsome son-of-a-gun. ,X Don't stare, but he and the new medical examiner are embracing. The assistant M.E. (played by Harlee McBride) waits at the bar for her date.

"You doing a story on Belzer? He's a helluva actor," says Clark Johnson, who plays Lewis. "Say nice things about him." (It sounds like an order.) Johnson is planning to visit Belzer and McBride at their "Hulk Hogan Estate" later this year. Didn't you wonder how they could afford a home in southern France?

During a 1990 cable show, Hogan put Richard Belzer in a wrestling hold. Hogan is a human pectoral muscle; Belzer is 150 pounds of wit and grit. Theirs was a match made in court. As Hogan's hold took hold, McBride watched as "Richard dropped to the floor like a rag. I knew this was too long for comedic timing." Belzer sued, settled out of court with the Hulkster and used the dough for a down payment on the home in France.

Speaking of Belzer, he arrives with an arm around a departing "Homicide" director. "Richard is an original," the director says. Someone else says, "He'll do anything for you." Like what? Like helping a colleague get through a bad day.

"Richard is very good at gathering us in," says actress Melissa Leo, who is in the middle of a child custody battle with her ex-husband John Heard.

"Richard," says Leo, who plays Sgt. Kay Howard, "gathered me in when I was having my ... upheavals."

INTERIOR: BRIGHTON'S/HARBOR COURT -- NOON.

Belzer orders two eggs up corraled by potatoes. He selects Earl Grey tea from his favorite waiter in Baltimore, Kit. Newspapers are available, but Belzer has already read his customary five for the day. A diligent comic has to keep up, he says.

Lunch with Munch is a many splintered thing. He's open to any topic, especially a few favorites: He loves McBride and their grown daughters, Bree Benton and Jessica Erin; he's bonded with Baltimore's because I feel an affinity for city people and their struggles; the key to acting is less is more and nothing is best; and "Homicide," quite simply, has transformed my life.

But Belzer is a little droopy. Maybe it's the 12-hour "Homicide" days, coupled with this business down I-95. Belzer headlines tomorrow at the Improv in Washington. He hasn't done stand-up since May at the re-opening of Newman's Catch a Rising Star.

Belzer feels out of shape, maybe a little soft. It's like getting back in the ring after a long time, you know?

At the Improv the next night, Belzer weaves a monologue where one-liners are beside the point. Is this an act or an assault? Babe, he's not here to chat:

I think we should drive a stake through Nixon's heart just to be sure. ... The mainstream press is just an arm of the state. ... Ah, yes, the greatest UFO of all time: the single bullet theory. ... Nice tie, pal, they couldn't guess your weight, eh? ...

A Belzer riff then gets left for dead on Connecticut Avenue. You want structure? Then, read a book, the comic says. I'm just a drunk actor trying to make you laugh.

It's bedtime. Take care, watch 'Homicide' and drive safely, says Richard Belzer.

He did come a long way to entertain you.

Pub Date: 2/20/97

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