Recently, on September 18th to be exact, a writer tweeted ’Bittersweet night for #SVU last night. Remind me to tell you all what it was sometime in October.’
The next day I happened to be talking to ‘SVU’ Executive Producer Warren Leight and I asked him point blank about the comment, He wouldn’t elaborate, only saying that “Yes, it was a very emotional night. There are transitions this year.”
At the time I speculated that this was about Richard Belzer's leaving the show, but didn't want to push.
Now we all know that that night was, in fact, Mr. Belzer’s final time on set in the role of ‘SVU’ stalwart Sergeant John Munch.
Munch, a clear fan favorite, has been with the ‘SVU’ team since the get-go and as most educated viewers know Munch debuted on television screens two decades ago in the drama “Homicide: Life on the Street.” From there, the character has jumped around, popping up on various shows, including “30 Rock,” “The Wire,” “Arrested Development,” and “The X-Files” among others. But, his longest stint by far has been as the compassionate, often cynical, but always pragmatic, detective in the Special Victims Unit.
Belzer’s portrayal of Munch has always been spot on, doling out droll realism infused with worldly witticism in an even-keeled, oddly re-assuring manner; a combination that is seemingly hard to pull off, but yet the actor appears to do it with ease.
While Belzer, as Munch, adds something tangible to every episode he’s appeared in, there are a few episodes that truly show both the character’s depth as well as the actor’s outstanding abilities.
In a very early ‘SVU’ episode, ”Legacy” from season two, Munch’s empathy is on full display as his personal feelings about a small girl’s abuse at the hands of a family member remind him of a childhood incident that left a lasting personal effect on him. It’s one of the first glimpses into the compassionate side of Munch and is played with a quiet strength by Belzer.
In season five’s “Painless,” and season six’s “Parts,” Belzer works closely with Academy Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin. The chemistry between the two is undeniable and in watching these strong, very dramatic episodes, it might slip viewers minds that Belzer is, and has been for years, a standup comedian.
Knowing Belzer’s personal history in comedy adds another layer to his performance as he works with comedic legend Jerry Lewis, in a rare dramatic appearance, in season eight's episode "Uncle" in which Lewis plays a mentally unstable member of Munch's family. Both give extremely heartfelt performances as they each try, in their own way, to see that justice isn’t denied for two victims.
In the season ten finale, “Zebras,” Munch, in a mere two scenes, interacts with one of his four ex-wives, showing exactly how he could have gotten four women, and maybe others, to marry him; with a sly charm that isn’t acquired but rather innate to this man. And, it doesn't hurt that Carol Kane stepped in to play the role. It’s only sad that Belzer and Kane couldn’t have had more onscreen time together.
Wednesday night’s episode, “Wonderland Story,” features a no doubt emotionally draining retirement party for Munch, but in the midst of that, there is still work to be done by the ‘SVU’ team and it’s safe to say that Sergeant Munch would be the first to deflect from his send-off in order to assure that justice prevails for the victim.
In this case, that victim will be familiar to viewers as actress Sofia Vassilieva returns as Sarah Walsh, a young music student who was a rape victim in season thirteen’s “True Believers.” In that installment, Sarah reluctantly testified against her assailant only to see him not be convicted of the crime.
“This episode is about re-victimization,” says Leight. “As you’ll recall, in ‘True Believers,’ Sarah’s assailant got off and then she felt like she was raped again by the legal system. What we found in our research is that once someone has been raped, the likelihood of them being raped again is higher than someone being raped for the first time. It’s a very scary thing that we, sort of reluctantly really, wanted to explore.”
Revisiting a case involving a past victim is yet another new twist for the show, but one that feels organic, explains Leight, “‘True Believers’ was one of the first times that we tried to take the show in a new direction. It was a very raw, documentary-like episode. And, the sad, but true fact is that sometimes guys get off, they get released and then that guy’s out on the street and the victim has to deal with that. People live with this crime day-in and day-out, it doesn’t always end with a conviction.”
While this storyline will undoubtedly represent what ‘SVU’ does best – bringing to light an issue that while tough to explore needs to be given attention – it’s the other event taking place on this night, Munch's farewell celebration, that will surely leave viewers with a sense of loss.
There is consolation in knowing that many sources have indicated that while Munch won't be seen in the squad room on a regular basis, the door is open for his return.
Adding this one last hurrah to his already stellar run, it’s a fairly safe assumption that “Wonderland Story” will provide Munch with the final chapter he so rightfully deserves.
And, while it’s hard to say goodbye to a character, it’s so much more poignant to say farewell to the actor who has breathed life into a character who began as merely a name typed on a sheet of paper, nestled into the pages of a script, some twenty years ago.
Wednesday night's hashtag for 'SVU' may be #FarewellMunch, (use it well) but let's all give the man behind the character his due by collectively saying, 'Thanks for the memories Mr. Belzer. Good luck in whatever it is you choose to do next. We look forward to seeing you on-screen again, hopefully sometime in the not too distant future."
'Law & Order: SVU" airs Wednesday night at 9/8c on NBC.