Richard Belzer Interview: "Law & Order" Star Talks "Corporate Conspiracies," Trump and Munch
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Richard Belzer is best known for his role as John Munch on the NBC drama police drama series Homicide: Life on the Street and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. He portrayed the character for 23 years (1993-2016).
Belzer has also performed as a stand-up comedian and appeared in the films Fame, Night Shift, Fletch Lives, The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Very Brady Sequel, among others. He has authored several books including UFOs, JFK and Elvis: Conspiracies You Don’t Have to be Crazy to Believe and Dead Wrong: Straight Facts on the Country’s Most Controversial Cover-Ups.
“I got thrown out of every school I ever went to for uncontrollable wit (laughs). I think comedy chose me.”
In May of 2017, Belzer’s latest book, Corporate Conspiracies: How Wall Street Took Over Washington, was released. With co-author David Wayne, the book takes a hard look at the wrongs done to us by big business in America.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Richard, you’ve written conspiracy books on several other subjects. So, why now write a book on corporate conspiracies?
Richard Belzer: It has been a cumulative thing for me over the years as I used to be a newspaper reporter. I covered a lot of different things. I was always interested in how a government works, how the marriage of corporations and the government has evolved over the years and just seeing how corporations are slowly but surely corporatizing the entire country. Corporations are involved in things a lot of people aren’t even aware of.
It’s a very fascinating subject because it touches everybody’s life every day with things like Monsanto or the pharmaceutical industry or the oil industry. There are so many things that it’s almost overwhelming. But I think people are more energized than ever before since the last election. I’m very heartened by the demonstrations and the groups that are gathering to find out exactly what a citizen’s rights are because we’re being overwhelmed.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What is the time period covered in the book?
Richard Belzer: It’s pretty modern. It addresses many corporations that have been in existence for the past 30, 40, 50, 60 years. This is a relatively new phenomenon. I’d say within the last 50 years it has been a progressive thing of redefining corporations. People used to trust big business. In fact, there used to be a saying: However General Motors goes, so goes the nation. So we’re inextricably tied into this system, and now we realize that they have been taking advantage of it through tax cuts and all these obvious things that are controlled by corporate interest.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Give me an example of one of the more incredible wrongful acts committed by a corporation.
Richard Belzer: To me, the most disturbing of all is when General Motors found out they had a faulty ignition switch, and it was causing accidents. They computed that it was cheaper to pay off the families of those people killed in those accidents than to retrofit all those vehicles. That is the most egregious, mean-spirited, soulless act of any corporation or individual. That’s murder.
They knew that those switches were faulty, and I think over a hundred people were killed. But they said, “Well, It’s cheaper to pay the families off than to fix the cars.” If you want to get an idea of how morally irresponsible corporations are, there’s an example that’s pretty distressing.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Along those same lines, would you include the tobacco industry?
Richard Belzer: Yeah. For years, they financed bogus stories saying that we’re all crazy if we think that tobacco can hurt us, and now there are warnings on every pack. I’ve always felt that you can’t take things at face value anymore. You have to question sources and where it’s coming from and what the motives are when you read a story in a newspaper or see it on television. I don’t think it’s enough to just take the headline and the surface information. I think responsible people have to delve into it.
One very heartening thing for me was the day after the inauguration, there were millions of people in the street. The election depressed a lot of people, and the fact that so many came out and are still demonstrating and organizing shows this is America, and if we have a bully in the White House, it’s not the end of the world. We hope (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In the book, you talk about corporations buying politicians. Are they the ones actually in control in Washington?
Richard Belzer: Here’s the thing. It’s not necessarily the guys in Washington, but the Pentagon has contracts in all 435 congressional districts in the United States. What they do is they start a program in a district, and if that congressman feels like the Pentagon budget is bloated or they want to cut defense spending, the Pentagon will say, “Okay. We’ll pull our project, and you’re going to cost your constituents jobs. We’ll put that in the newspaper, too.” Essentially, the Pentagon blackmails the congressman every time they come up for election. I think when more and more people become aware of these things, the more and more they’ll react to it and do something about it
We could certainly cut a great deal out of defense spending and still have tons. For instance, a fighter jet that was commissioned a while back for $1.5 trillion is now obsolete. That’s money we could’ve put into schools, hospitals, roads and infrastructure, but we just threw it down the toilet on some plane that doesn’t work anymore. There’s enough for people to get riled about and certainly things we can do about it. It’s not hopeless.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What are some of the things the average citizen can do about this?
Richard Belzer: For instance, we can start by getting in touch with our congressmen demanding that all this money be taken out of politics, put a limit on campaign contributions and the revolving door where someone in government turns around and goes to work with a corporation, goes back to the government and then makes laws helping that corporation. That’s got to stop. Perpetual war. It seems like we’re always putting our troops and our reputation on the line by getting involved in all these disputes around the world that we have no business in unless there are resources we can extract from that area.
Also, we’ve got to get on top of these companies with GMOs or genetically modified food. That is something we can really do something about. This thing, “too big to fail,” is ridiculous. Their banks have to become more accountable. George Washington said that we should avoid foreign entanglements. In other words, do business with other countries, but don’t get involved in their internal affairs. I think that’s really good advice to this day.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What do you think George Washington would say about the current administration’s possible entanglements with Russia?
Richard Belzer: I think he would say, “You guys didn’t listen to me.” I think our founding fathers would be depressed and perplexed because America was a great idea, and it has been kind of perverted in many ways, as you know.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Several years ago, at his Friars Club Roast, you called Donald Trump, “the man, the legend, the fucking grifter wrapped in a fraud perpetrated on society.”
Richard Belzer: Oh, yeah, 2004. I was a little ahead of my time.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you think now that was a sort of prophesy of things to come in this administration?
Richard Belzer: That’s what people have been telling me (laughs). They say, “How did you know?” Well, I lived in New York, so I’ve seen Trump for years. He was no mystery to us in New York. We knew he was a blowhard, dangerous and megalomaniacal, but no one dreamt that he would ever be president. We’re still reverberating from that, I think.
We wake up every day wondering what’s going to happen. I don’t think that’s ever happened with any other president. With other presidents, it might’ve been every week or every month or something, but this is every hour. I don’t know what can be done because you’ve got the vice-president now involved in lies. We could be looking at Paul Ryan (laughs). That’s if they impeach Trump and Pence. So, I don’t know which wrist to cut first.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): After Ryan, the next in line would be Senator Orrin Hatch.
Richard Belzer: Then, we’re in a lot of trouble either way.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’ve enjoyed your work on Homicide: Life on the Street and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, playing the role of the sardonic Det. John Munch for 23 years. Was it ever difficult or not satisfying as an actor to play the same character for such a long period of time?
Richard Belzer: Oh no, I love the character. The writers got to know me. The character of Munch was really close to how I do things. It was a dream come true for me and an utter delight to play this character for so many years. I’m very lucky.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you still performing stand-up comedy?
Richard Belzer: Yeah. I haven’t done it in a while, but I’m going to get back into it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What do you think about TV comedians like Stephen Colbert getting into trouble for what they say on the air, particularly about the president?
Richard Belzer: The key word here is “comedy.” Stephen Colbert’s not a senator. He’s not a justice of the Supreme Court. Freedom of speech is one of the most revered things we can possibly have in our country. He didn’t yell “fire” in his theatre (laughs). He broke no law.
I think that if it weren’t for comedians, a lot of people would not get any information because many people don’t watch the news anymore. They don’t trust it. So, Noah, Stephen and Jimmy Kimmel are fortunately or unfortunately sources of news. In fact, a few years ago, there was a survey taken, and they asked people who the most trusted newsman in America was. Who do you think they said it was?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Not David Letterman (laughs).
Richard Belzer: Close. Jon Stewart. He came in ahead of Tom Brokaw. That’s where we are right now.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): We’ve come a long way since Walter Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America.”
Richard Belzer: Yeah. I think part of it is that the news is so disturbing we have to pepper it with wit in order to just get through the day.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Speaking of wit, when will your book, Conversations with Jerry Lewis, be released?
Richard Belzer: In the spring.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you been a friend of his since the MDA Telethon days?
Richard Belzer: Oh, yeah.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is that what the book’s about?
Richard Belzer: No. I met him in the 80s and saw him every once in a while. But then, he became very interested in my work on Law & Order, and we started chatting. I went out to visit him in Vegas, we connected and have become incredibly close. He calls me his son, and I call him “dad.” I have a tattoo of his face on my arm. Actually, I convinced him to do an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. He played my uncle.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I remember. I thought it was terrible when he was ousted from the telethon.
Richard Belzer: Oh, yeah, that was awful. He’s starting a new charity soon for disadvantaged youth. He’s 91 years old. Isn’t that amazing? 91.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is that your next book?
Richard Belzer: That’ll probably come out before my other book, so yeah, that’s my next book. I’m really going to push and continue to promote Corporate Conspiracies because I think it’s an important book, at the risk of being immodest.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Any plans for Munch to make another appearance on Law & Order: SVU?
Richard Belzer: The show is renewed for its 19th season, so they’re coming back. I have a suspicion you might see Chris (Meloni) and me back on the show again for some event.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Any other projects?
Richard Belzer: This book is very important to me. I live in France now, so I’m kind of semi-retired, just studying and writing. I have a show on YouTube called Richard Belzer’s Conversation. I’ve interviewed Jerry Lewis, Dick Cavett, Robert Klein, Gilbert Gottfried and just a bunch of really good people.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Has comedy always been your first love?
Richard Belzer: I got thrown out of every school I ever went to for uncontrollable wit (laughs). I think comedy chose me.
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