John Munch retired because Richard Belzer is old. I have no idea why there’s so much debate about this. In fact, I had no idea there was controversy. It seemed so obvious. He is literally exactly seven months younger than my mother. Jerry Orbach was 69 when he retired (and then died), and he did so because he was past retirement age for a New York City police officer. Richard Belzer was the same age when Munch was officially retired on Law & Order: SVU. Now, he can go off and write conspiracist books.
All in all, though, Richard Belzer has had quite the career. In the early ‘70s, he moved to New York and started doing stand-up. He was, in fact, hired to be the warm-up comedian for a new little show called Saturday Night Live, and his first television appearances came when they just needed another warm body. His second was when an educational show also filmed in New York used him in one of the many short films included between puppet segments. He was in a 1974 movie called The Groove Tube and then appeared as the MC in the original 1980 Fame, getting to chew out a major character who’s being a real jerk.
Actually, his first recurring character, Joe Kline, is a pretty unsurprising character for Belzer to play. (We’ll get to some of the more disappointing bits of his personality later.) He’s a TV reporter on a tabloid-style news show; as I recall, he’s the sort who is very fond of muckraking and conspiracism. In 1994, who would also play recurring Superman character Inspector William Henderson on Lois & Clark, one of three actors to play the role in the first season. Presumably he didn’t appear after that because Belzer was really busy.
Because 1993 was the first appearance of Detective John Munch, originally on Homicide: Life on the Street. He’s since played the role on a total of ten shows on a total of five networks. I’d argue that several appearances don’t count—I’m not going to take an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel as a real appearance of Munch—but most of those are indeed supposed to be the same character in-universe as one another, making Munch quite the nexus in the Tommy Wesphall Universe Hypothesis. Though it is also worth noting that apparently he appears on Arrested Development, a show on which another show on which he appeared is explicitly mentioned to be fictional.
I wish I could talk about Belzer with more enthusiasm, but I kind of don’t like him as a person. I’ve read one of his mystery novels—yes, he’s written mystery novels, wherein, yes, he’s a character as himself—and it’s, you know, fine. What I can’t read is his books about conspiracy theories. He’s been a regular guest star on the Alex Jones radio show and has actually unironically used the term “false flag” to refer to the Boston Marathon bombing. So, yeah, that’s not great. I wish he weren’t terrible as a person, given how entertaining he is as a performer.