Richard Belzer: 'I Am Not A Cop' In the criminal justice system, Richard Belzer has played Detective John Munch on television for more than fifteen years — and on ten different shows. Now he's published a new novel.

Richard Belzer: 'I Am Not A Cop'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/97905053/97905028" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, host:

In the criminal justice system, Richard Belzer has played Detective John Munch on television for more than 15 years.

(Soundbite of scene interstitial sound from "Law and Order")

SIMON: And on 10 different shows from "Homicide: Life on the Street" to "The Wire," "Arrested Development," and of course several different flavors of "Law and Order," he has become so well-known as Munch, police cars will slow down to offer him a lift. And sometimes he'll take it. Here is his story.

(Soundbite of scene interstitial sound from "Law and Order")

SIMON: Richard Belzer's now applied whatever lessons you can learn about law enforcement by playing a cop to produce his first novel. It's called "I Am Not A Cop," which is co-authored with Mike Black. Richard Belzer joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. RICHARD BELZER (Actor; Author, "I Am Not a Cop"): Oh, it's great. I loved that introduction.

SIMON: Thank you. I was hoping you'd say that. Good.

Mr. BELZER: No, I mean, it's just this thing is so universally recognizable, the "Law and Order" - I call it the Dick Woolf cash register sound.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BELZER: Every time you hear that, it means he's making more money.

SIMON: Well, now...

Mr. BELZER: Not that it's bad.

SIMON: And making some money for everyone who works for him too, right, yes?

Mr. BELZER: Yes, yes.

SIMON: Now didn't - not a cop, of course - but didn't someone surrender to you once?

Mr. BELZER: Well, when I was filming "Homicide" in Baltimore, we were filming a scene in an alleyway with police cars. Of course, they were prop cars and actors dressed as police officers. I had my bulletproof vest on, my badge on a chain around my neck. I was carrying a gun. We were rehearsing an arrest scene. And a real shoplifter ran around the corner onto the set. And he dropped the bag he was carrying and threw up his arms and surrendered to me. And then he said, oh, expletive, Munch! And a real security guard ran around the corner and tackled him and arrested him. It was funny because the guy had stolen Q-tips and film.

SIMON: Q-tips and film.

Mr. BELZER: So this was not exactly "Topkapi".

SIMON: Yeah, yeah, that's right.

Mr. BELZER: But that made me start thinking about the convergence of celebrity and reality, particularly in America, the making celebrities out of virtually everyone. And Paddy Chayefsky's network really was so ahead of its time. What was it? 1976? He predicted that the entertainment divisions would take over the news divisions, and he predicted reality shows, and you know, just - we're living it now.

SIMON: Well, let's set up the premise of your novel a bit because...

Mr. BELZER: Sure.

SIMON: It's a character with your name who gets caught up in a case. He's having dinner one night in Barton Beach, I guess.

Mr. BELZER: I fictionalized my own life. And I've always been a huge fan of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and James Cain and film noir. So that's one of my favorite things is the counterculture, outsider, renegade guy who usually used to be a cop, then becomes a detective. But in my book, I'm calling it a metareality novel where I take my life and I slightly fictionalize it. And I create this world where I have a friend who's a Russian emigre who came here. And he's a very smart doctor who was a medical examiner. We meet, have dinner. And after dinner, well, he is mysteriously attacked by these two Russian thugs, and I dispatch them very artfully.

And then he disappears, and I get caught up in it. And along with the tradition of Hitchcock and Hammett, you know, where the so-called hero is pursued by everyone and is trying, you know, he's fighting the police, he's fighting the Russian mob, he's fighting his own studio. So I like that kind of thing where the reader is with the protagonist. And another thing I really like is voiceover and narration. So I get to do that in the novel. I talk to the reader.

SIMON: Can you make portrayals of Russian organized crime figures these days that you can't about Italians and Sicilians?

Mr. BELZER: I'm tired of Italian gangsters. Not that I don't watch "The Godfather" every morning when I get up and "Goodfellas" when I go to sleep at night. But I've just always been fascinated by Russia as a country, by the Russian personality. And now Russia is literally a gangster nation. For them to spill over here, I think is much more realistic than the cartoon, you know, Arab terrorist.

SIMON: Has your character, John Munch, changed over the years, or how has he changed?

Mr. BELZER: I think, in some subtle ways, he has become even more paranoid and more distrustful and more of a dissident. When we first did the part in Baltimore "Homicide," I wasn't quite sure how radical my character was. So in the first season of "Homicide," I think I really got a grasp of who he was. I also met the detective who I'm loosely based on. That was really a great experience for me because he kind of looks a little bit like me, and he is a legend in Baltimore because he would come upon a crime scene and, you know, like somebody would be decapitated and the guy killed his whole family and there's blood everywhere, and he would do a joke, you know, gallows humor.

And a lot of police departments love to have the court jester in amongst them because what they see is so nonverbal and so horrific and so souless that someone comes in and cracks a joke, it's like, oh, thanks a lot. And I think that's why my character has such legs, as we say in the business, and has been able to last so long, is because I serve a function. I think Munch is the spice that is much needed in that environment.

SIMON: May I ask, is Bebe with you? Bebe, Bebe.

Mr. BELZER: Bebe is not. And everyone is asking me that whenever I'm - we're talking about my dog, who I bring to work with me, who travels all over the world with me. It's funny now, when I go to premieres or openings, the reporters on the red carpet go, Bebe, look over here, Bebe. They don't care about me anymore.

SIMON: Now, forgive me for not knowing. But what breed is Bebe?

Mr. BELZER: Bebe is a poodle fox terrier that was a stray dog. I live in France part time. And this is a dog that was wandering around the village and followed our other dog home. Our other dog is a border collie mix. And Bebe is a little dog. And the little dog tried to mount the big dog, which was very funny and exhibited incredibly good taste.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BELZER: So, we kept Bebe.

SIMON: Fits right into the family, as it were?

Mr. BELZER: Yeah, yeah, now they're a comedy team now. My two dogs are amazing.

SIMON: Richard, a delight, thanks very much.

Mr. BELZER: I am not a cop.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I've heard. Boy, well I'm glad we could finally get that clear for millions of people. Richard Belzer, known to millions as Detective John Munch. His new book, a novel, "I Am Not a Cop."

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.