Baltimore wears its weirdness, the grand and the shabby, on its star-spangled sleeve. We named a football team after a poem about a guy being haunted by a bird because its troubled creator died here. We obsess about crab seasoning. We know you don’t understand our accents, and we like it that way.
In short, we’re the only kind of place that could have created a character as singularly and endearingly odd as Detective John Munch, played by comedian Richard Belzer, who died Sunday at age 78.
For six years, he was the conspiracy theory-spouting soul of “Homicide: Life On The Street,” filmed in and around Baltimore and based on real-life Detective Jay Landsman from the David Simon book that inspired the series. Munch took his sardonic wit to New York for 15 seasons of “Law & Order: SVU” after the cancellation of “Homicide” — an event that still saddens me 24 years later — and appeared on a total of 10 different series.
But he will always be quintessentially Baltimore to me, because even when he did too much, said too much and was too much, you couldn’t help but love him.
He wasn’t snappy, like “Law and Order‘s” Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach), who, Munch discovered in a crossover episode, once slept with Munch’s ex-wife. He wasn’t cool like Detective Tutuola (Ice-T), who became his beloved partner. Indeed, he was hangdog and paranoid and could be counted on to puncture any hopeful balloon with a depressing fact no one asked for.
But at his rumpled heart Munch was the kind of guy who called his prickly partner Stan Bollander (Ned Beatty) “the big man” because he really loved him and didn’t know how to tell him otherwise. His fragile heart shattered in fragments of what-ifs and regret when he had to investigate the brutal murder of his high school crush. And years later, after Munch’s “SVU” retirement, he returned to that New York precinct to bail hothead younger Detective Nick Amaro (Danny Pino) out of jail because he recognizes self-destructive behavior when he sees it.
I was aware of Belzer’s comedy in the ’80s, but his work as Munch made me a forever fan, because it was personal to me. At first, his very Baltimorean brand of skeptical earnestness bonded me to my hometown while I lived elsewhere. And although “Homicide” was a very Baltimore show, Munch seemed so specific. “Kaddish,” the 1997 episode in which he mourns the death of high school friend Helen, references Pikesville, heart of the local Jewish community. That name might not have meant anything to viewers in New York or Los Angeles, but I knew that place. I knew what it was. And I loved it. I loved him.
I am a Black kid from Baltimore, but Munch’s Jewishness was part of what made that show so authentic to me, in a way that my friends who lived elsewhere didn’t get. Baltimore is as segregated as any other place, maybe more, but we all wind up working in the same places, walking past each other, interacting, whether we want to or not. And sometimes, somewhere in there, we grow to love each other.
In my book, “Black Widow,” my love story about a Jewish kid I went to high school with and fell in love with 20 years later, I quote something Ice-T said about his friendship with Belzer — “He’s Jewish and I’m Black, so the Klan is after both of us.” That resonated with us, because there a foxhole bond in a way, the sense of acknowledging that you’re stronger against outside danger because you’re in it together.
Just last week on “SVU,” Detective Tutuola was given some sort of award, and I half-expected Munch to be there. Because I am becoming an old Black lady who assumes that everybody’s dying, I said out loud “Oh, wow. I wonder if Richard Belzer’s sick,” and I guess I was right. I kind of think that if he could have, Belzer would have shown up, just for a scene or two, and said something endearing in his love language of snark and reliability.
In my mind, he was there.