John Munch

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John Munch
Law & Order character
John Munch in Law & Order- Special Victims Unit.JPG
First appearance "Gone for Goode" (HLOTS)
"Payback" (SVU)
Last appearance "Forgive Us Our Trespasses" (HLOTS)
"Spring Awakening" (SVU)
Portrayed by Richard Belzer
Joseph Perrino (teen)
David Rudman (Muppet)
Time on show HLOTS: 1993–1999
SVU: 1999–2014
Seasons HLOTS: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
SVU: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15
Credited appearances 122 episodes (HLOTS)
4 episodes (L&O)
1 episode (The X Files)
325 episodes (SVU)
1 episode (The Beat)
1 episode (TBJ)
1 episode (Arrested Development)
1 episode (The Wire)
456 episodes (total)
Succeeded by Olivia Benson (as Sergeant)
Information
Nickname(s) Johnny (in childhood)[1]
Munchkin (as Baltimore detective)
Occupation BPD Detective (HLOTS)
NYPD Detective (SVU)
Title Homicide Detective (HLOTS)
Special Victims Unit Detective (SVU seasons 1–8)
Special Victims Unit Sergeant (SVU seasons 9–15)
Cold Case Sergeant (SVU season 14)
DA Investigator (SVU season 15)
Family Pete Munch (father)
Bernard Munch (brother)
David Munch (brother)
Andrew Munch (uncle)
Lee Munch (cousin)
Partner Stanley Bolander (HLOTS: seasons 1–3)
Megan Russert (HLOTS: season 4)
Mike Kellerman (HLOTS: season 6)
Tim Bayliss (HLOTS: season 7)
Brian Cassidy (SVU: season 1)
Monique Jeffries (SVU: season 1)
Fin Tutuola (SVU: seasons 2–8, 10–12)

John Munch is a fictional character played by actor Richard Belzer. Munch first appears on the American crime drama television series Homicide: Life on the Street on NBC. A regular through the entire run of the series, Munch is a cynical detective in the Baltimore Police Department's Homicide unit, and a firm believer in conspiracy theories. He is originally partnered with Det. Stanley Bolander (Ned Beatty). On the cancellation of Homicide in 1999, Munch became a regular on the Law & Order spin off, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, after Belzer was offered a regular role on the show, and has been with the show all fifteen seasons. On SVU, Munch is a senior detective in the New York Police Department's Special Victims Unit, and is first partnered with Brian Cassidy (Dean Winters), followed by Monique Jeffries (Michelle Hurd), and Fin Tutuola (Ice-T). In the ninth season premiere, Munch is promoted to the rank of Sergeant and occasionally takes on supervisory functions within the department. In season 14, Munch is temporarily reassigned to the Cold Case Unit, after solving a decade-old child abduction case in the episode "Manhattan Vigil". He returns to the squad in "Secrets Exhumed", in which he brings back a 1980s rape-homicide cold case for the squad to investigate.

In the season 15 episode, "Internal Affairs", SVU Captain Donald Cragen informs Detective Olivia Benson that Munch has submitted his retirement papers, stating that a recent case (portrayed in the episode "American Tragedy") had hit him hard. In the following episode, "Wonderland Story", Cragen and the squad throw Munch a retirement party, where past and present colleagues and family members celebrate his career. At the conclusion of the episode, Munch returns to the precinct to gather his belongings, where he and Cragen shake hands as Cragen remarks, "you had one hell of a run, Sergeant Munch". He has since continued as a special guest star, appearing in the fifteenth-season finale "Spring Awakening".

Munch is based on Jay Landsman, a central figure in David Simon's true crime book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.[2] The character of Munch has appeared in more television series than any other fictional character, appearing in nine series on five networks since the character's debut in 1993. With his retirement in the character's 22nd season on television, he was on U.S television longer than Marshal Matt Dillon (Gunsmoke) and Frasier Crane (Cheers and Frasier), both of whom were on television for 20 seasons.

Character progression[edit]

Munch first appears as a central character in the TV series Homicide: Life on the Street, as a homicide detective in the Baltimore Police Department's fictionalized homicide unit, which debuted January 31, 1993. The character was primarily based on Jay Landsman, a central figure in David Simon's true crime book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, a documentary account of the homicide unit's operation over one year.[3] However, Munch's storyline also touched on the book's depiction of the relationship between real-life detectives Donald Worden and David Brown, in which Worden was relentless in his tutelage/hazing of the younger detective but also genuinely wanted him to succeed and was impressed when the younger cop did excellent work. A storyline in the book involving Brown's cracking a very difficult hit-and-run homicide was included almost verbatim in the show's pilot.

Barry Levinson, co-creator and executive producer of Homicide, said Belzer was a "lousy actor" during his audition when he first read lines from the script for "Gone for Goode", the first episode in the series.[4] Levinson asked Belzer to take some time to reread and practice the material, then come back and read it again. During his second reading, Levinson said Belzer was "still terrible", but that the actor eventually found confidence in his performance.[5]

Munch appeared as a regular character in every season, and in almost every episode, of Homicide. After Homicide: Life on the Street concluded its seventh season in May 1999, the character transferred into the Law & Order universe as a regular character on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (both Homicide and the original Law & Order had crossed-over numerous times before, and Munch had featured centrally in each crossover). It is explained that Munch had retired from the Baltimore Police Department, taken his pension, and moved to New York to join a sex crimes investigation unit, where he was eventually given a promotion to sergeant.

Munch joined the BPD's homicide unit in 1983.[6] During the fourth-season premiere of Homicide: Life on the Street, he signed up to take a promotion exam in hopes of becoming a sergeant, but a "comedy of errors" prevented him from showing up for it. In the first episode of the ninth season of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, it is revealed that he passed the NYPD sergeant's exam, having taken it on a bar bet, and earned his promotion. In the same episode, Munch appears in uniform, displaying four breast bars: US Flag Bar, World Trade Center Bar, the Exceptional Merit Commendation, and the Firearms Proficiency Bar. In that scene, his shield number is clearly visible: 0231.[7] He is temporarily promoted to commanding officer of the Special Victims' Unit following Cragen's temporary reassignment but is depicted as happily relinquishing control back to Donald Cragen, commenting upon Cragen's return, "This job sucks". He has, however, kept his rank, as he is still referred to as Sergeant in later episodes.[8] He is temporarily put in charge again when Cragen gets suspended after the detectives mishandle the Nikki Sherman rape case.[9]

Munch makes a cameo appearance on a fifth season episode of The Wire.[10] Munch can be seen at Kavanaugh's Bar arguing with the bartender over his tab. He appears in "Unusual Suspects", the third episode of the fifth season of The X-Files—the episode is set in 1989, when Munch was still at Baltimore Police Department. Munch was mentioned as a liaison with Britain "in New York's Special Victims Unit" by main character DCI John Luther in a first series episode of BBC's TV programme Luther.

Character biography[edit]

Though his age is never directly stated on Homicide, a few clues are presented pointing to it. In episode 5.17, "Kaddish", Munch talks about his high school years and looks at a yearbook from 1961. In episode 6.95 "Full Court Press", Munch says: "Going to high school was no day at the beach for a teenage Jew in the '50s". Because first grade began at age six and high school ended in 12th[11] grade in Maryland during this time, it is likely Munch was born in 1944, the same year as Belzer. Munch is described, however, as being 48 years old in SVU episode 1.18, "Chat Room". To be 48 at the time this episode took place, Munch would have been born circa 1951, depending on when his birthday falls. Also noteworthy is a seventh season episode of Homicide in which the ongoing conflict between Munch and Det. Stuart Gharty (played by Peter Gerety) culminates. After a confrontation inside the Waterfront bar, Gharty asks Munch how old he was during that period of the war (1970), to which Munch responds "Eighteen", putting the year of his birth circa 1951.

SVU and Homicide have Munch growing up in different places. He is a native of Maryland on Homicide and attended high school in Pikesville, which has a large Jewish community. Munch said that he took many field trips to Ft. McHenry as a kid, which would likely only happen were he to live in the area.[12] Munch tells Det. Olivia Benson in SVU episode 2.4 (E1401), "Legacy", that he grew up on the "Lower East Side".[13] Munch said to Det. Fin Tutuola in that same season that he "came back from Baltimore" after his marriage broke up, suggesting that he is originally from New York. One possible scenario has Munch being born in New York[14] and moving to Baltimore where he attended Pikesville High School for four years.[15] His grandfather worked in the garment business.[16] Munch worked with him in the early 1960s.[17]

Munch's childhood was not a happy one. He and his brother were physically abused by their father, who had bipolar disorder. One night, after getting a beating "for being a wiseass", Munch told his father that he hated his guts. That was the last thing he ever said to his father before his father committed suicide; for years afterward, he believes that his father's death was his fault.[18] Munch has an uncle, Andrew (played by Jerry Lewis), who gets diagnosed with depressive pseudodementia.[19] The elder Munch is found by Elliot Stabler living as a transient in Manhattan, and is subsequently reunited with his nephew. Andrew, however, reacts badly to his antidepressant medication, which triggers a mania that results in his taking a personal vendetta against a suspected rapist/murderer SVU is investigating, eventually killing the man by pushing him in front of a subway train. Andrew refuses to plead insanity and take further medication, and says goodbye to his nephew one last time before being sent to prison. In a deleted scene from the third season of Homicide, Munch mentions to both Meldrick Lewis and Tim Bayliss that he had an uncle who lived up north but was unsure of what became of him—this is presumably Andrew. Munch is affected by the death of a young girl who lived near him when he was younger; he blames himself, at least partially, for not noticing that she was being abused by her mother, despite seeing her every day when he came home from school. In the 14th-season SVU episode "Twenty-Five Acts", it is mentioned that Munch's mother is living in a retirement community.

During the late 1960s and the early 1970s, he was an occasional reporter and music reviewer for the alternative magazine The Paper. Although he considered himself to be a "dangerous radical" due to his left-wing views, conspiracy theories and involvement with anti-Vietnam War protests, the FBI believed that he was a dilettante and posed no threat.[20]

Munch's partner at the start of Homicide is Stanley Bolander (played by Ned Beatty), an experienced police detective with more than 20 years under his belt. The two are partners through the show's first three seasons until Bolander is first suspended and then retires. Despite the tremendous amount of grief the two give each other, Munch respects him and counts him as a dear friend.

In SVU, Munch is first partnered with Brian Cassidy (played by Dean Winters), whom he thinks of as a kind of younger brother, alternately poking fun at him and imparting (often questionable) advice on life and women. When Cassidy leaves the precinct in 2000,[21] Munch is briefly partnered with Monique Jeffries (played by Michelle Hurd),[22] and then with Odafin Tutuola (played by rapper Ice-T).[23] He and Tutuola get off to a rough start, but gradually come to like and respect each other. After Munch is shot by a suspect during a trial,[24] the dialogue he shares with Tutuola in the hospital demonstrates the regard and respect the characters have gained for one another. When Tutuola gets frustrated over a potential witness being unable to testify due to relapsing on heroin, Munch mentions a former partner who took cases that personally—and who eventually committed suicide as a result.[25]

In Homicide, along with Tim Bayliss (played by Kyle Secor) and Meldrick Lewis (played by Clark Johnson), Munch is co-owner of "The Waterfront", a bar located across the street from their Baltimore police station. In the episode "Took" from the fifth and final season of The Wire, Munch makes a small cameo in which he refers to having owned The Waterfront in the past tense. Even during the severe recession of the late 2000s, he talks about wanting to buy a bar again in New York.[26]

In SVU, Munch takes the Sergeant's exam on a bar bet, passes, and is promoted to that rank. As sergeant, he is called upon to take charge of the unit on a number of occasions when Cragen is relieved of duty. Following the events of the season 15 episode "American Tragedy", Cragen informs Benson that Munch has submitted his retirement papers.[27] Munch officially retires in the episode "Wonderland Story", showing up to his retirement party in a white tuxedo as his friends bid him goodbye. As the episode concludes, Munch is at his desk in the squad room, retrieving the last of his personal effects. The episode flashes back to a scene from Homicide where Munch is reviewing suspect photos. The phone rings, and he answers it "Homicide, I mean SVU..."

Continuity[edit]

Although Homicide and Law & Order SVU officially share the same continuity, they provide conflicting accounts of Munch's childhood, and SVU rarely mentions Munch's past as a Baltimore detective. Two regular actors from Homicide (Peter Gerety, Andre Braugher) and two recurring ones (Clayton LeBouef, Željko Ivanek), whose characters regularly interacted with Munch on that series, have appeared as different, unrelated characters on SVU, sometimes sharing scenes with Munch. In Braugher's first appearance on SVU as Attorney Bayard Ellis, however, there is an implicit nod towards the shared continuity between the shows when Munch greets Braugher's character as if he knows him. "There's a glimmer of [recognition]", as Braugher described the meeting.[28] A rare example of consistent continuity between the two shows is Munch's amicable divorce from Gwen, who has appeared in episodes of both Homicide and SVU as portrayed by actress Carol Kane. Homicide: The Movie, which features Munch's temporary return to the Baltimore Homicide Unit for one case (the shooting of his former lieutenant), briefly acknowledges that Munch is currently assigned to the Special Victims Unit in New York.

Characteristics[edit]

Munch is Jewish, but once commented that the only thing he and Judaism had in common was that he "didn't like to work on Saturdays". However, he is sensitive to anti-Semitic jokes, though conversely, he also occasionally makes comments that play on Jewish stereotypes, usually in an ironic fashion. He indicates that he is familiar with Jewish prayers, and eventually says Kaddish at the end of an episode of Homicide of the same name in memory of a Jewish murder victim.[29] He is familiar with common Yiddish words and phrases. Munch interacts with an Orthodox Jewish witness, using one Yiddish word, farshteyn ("understand"), and referring to the twelve Israelite tribes from the Bible. The man remarks that Munch must be Jewish and, consequently, agrees to help him out of a fraternal connection. After the interaction, Munch reciprocates by offering the man a ride back to the Riverdale neighborhood in The Bronx.[30] He identifies his ethnic background as Romanian.[31]

He has a younger brother named Bernie who owns a funeral parlor; he at one point jokes that he occasionally "throws him some business". He mentioned another brother who is in the drywall business.[32] His cousin, Lee, acts as his accountant—and the accountant for The Waterfront—when he lives in Baltimore.

Munch has been described as a stubborn man who can "smell a conspiracy at a five-year-old's lemonade stand". Munch can often be seen lecturing his co-workers on a variety of conspiracy theories, which he views as obvious truths. In his very first case with SVU, he rants about the government cover-up in the Kennedy Assassination.[33] However, Munch does not seem to believe all conspiracy theories; in The X-Files episode "Unusual Suspects"—a cross-over episode with Homicide—Munch vocally disbelieved the Lone Gunmen's claims of a government plot to expose Baltimore residents to a hallucinogenic gas.[34]

Munch's most notable attributes are his sarcastic wit and dark humor. He is known to make jokes at crime scenes and insult witnesses and suspects in murder investigations. A very cultured, articulate individual, Munch has many interests in art, philosophy and other intellectual activities. This, contrasted with the working class officers he worked with, has often led him to be viewed as bizarre by others. He seems to view himself as more intelligent than many of his colleagues noting that in Baltimore he "was surrounded by intellectual insects". He is known for his trademark dark glasses, thin ties (during 'Homicide') and his very thin appearance which he claimed was "from only having fifteen hundred calories a day".

At the onset of Homicide, he had been divorced twice, but by the seventh season he had had a total of three ex-wives, until marrying Waterfront bartender Billie Lou Hatfield;[35] each one of the previous three is "beautiful, spoiled, and none of them matched John Munch intellectually". Before leaving Baltimore, Munch had divorced Billie Lou and never shies away from cracking sarcastic divorce jokes.[33] Dr. Aubrey Jackson has noted, however, that despite his romantic troubles, Munch still believes in true love, and is crushed by the fact he has not found it.[36]

He once stated that he and his first wife, Gwen, had sex once after their divorce. Her first on screen appearance is the season six episode of Homicide titled "All Is Bright" where she is played by Carol Kane. Gwen shows up at The Waterfront bar to inform Munch her mother has died. As the two catch up, he agrees to arrange for the funeral of Gwen's mother despite the fact that his ex-mother-in-law loathed him and did everything in her power to disrupt her daughter's marriage to him. Near the end of the episode, Munch performs a touching toast to his former mother in law in one of the few times his cynical facade slips. Carol Kane next returns as Gwen in the season 10 finale of Law and Order: SVU and is portrayed as a paranoid schizophrenic. While working with Lennie Briscoe (played by Jerry Orbach) in the season four episode of Homicide, "For God and Country", a crossover with Law and Order, Munch loses badly to Briscoe in a pool game and learns Briscoe had briefly dated, and had sex with, Gwen.[37] He goes on to get drunk and proclaims that he forgives Gwen and still loves her. Despite this, it appears that he and Briscoe become quite good friends—their interaction in the two following crossovers between Homicide and Law & Order, as well as in a crossover between Law & Order and SVU, is generally friendly (Belzer originally pitched to Dick Wolf that Munch join Law and Order as Briscoe's new partner, but the role had been filled by Jesse L Martin).

While Munch could never be accused of being sentimental, his cynical façade has occasionally slipped, revealing a deep compassion—especially for children—born from his unhappy childhood. When Munch emerges unscathed from an ambush shooting during a third season episode of Homicide that left three of his colleagues in the hospital, he tries to laugh it off, but he later breaks down in tears. In the second season of SVU, after solving a case dealing with an abusive mother who put her daughter in a coma, Munch tells Benson that when he was in high school, one of his neighbors killed her daughter, and that for years he felt guilty for failing to recognize that she was abusing the girl.

Munch is a staunch believer in individual rights and occasionally finds that something he has to do in the line of duty goes against his sense of morality. A particularly disturbing experience for him was having to see patients on dialysis have their kidney transplants denied.[38]

In the third season episode of Homicide, "Law and Disorder", Munch is suspected by Detective Tim Bayliss of having murdered Gordon Pratt (played by Steve Buscemi), a Baltimore man suspected of shooting three homicide detectives, including Munch's partner Stanley Bolander who he was with at the time. Munch had motive, opportunity, an unconfirmed alibi, and never actually denies killing Pratt, but Bayliss refuses to question Munch further or test his service weapon to determine if it has been fired recently. He closes the case, informing his shift commander that there is insufficient evidence to charge anyone.

Munch is fluent in French, as shown when he chats with a victim in Law and Order: SVU's season 12 episode "Flight". He also has some conversational ability in Russian,[39] Hebrew, Yiddish, Spanish, Greek, and Hungarian. He also can do a convincing Afrikaner accent, once convincing a murder suspect attempting to sell stolen diamonds that "with one phone call, I can release so many diamonds into the market that what you are holding would not be worth as much as a stick of gum".

Diminished role[edit]

A 2007 news item notes that the character of Munch "has slowly disappeared from [SVU's] plotlines", and quotes Belzer as saying "[i]t's mystifying to me", admitting his feelings to be "slightly hurt".[40] Following season nine, in which Munch appeared in just over half of the episodes, Belzer reiterated his mystification at the development, but also seemed to want to tone it down: "It's like yanking the tonsils out of the gift horse if I complain too much. I've been lucky over the years [...] c'est la vie: I'm not starving."[41]

Appearances and crossovers[edit]

The character has spanned over 20 years and 22 seasons. Along with 119 out of 122 episodes and 1 TV movie of Homicide and 241 episodes of SVU out of 324, Munch has also appeared as a character in other TV series, movies and albums:

Munch has become the only fictional character, played by a single actor, to appear on 10 different television shows. These shows were on five different networks: NBC (Homicide: Life on the Street, Law & Order, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Law & Order: Trial by Jury, and 30 Rock); Fox (The X-Files and Arrested Development); UPN (The Beat); HBO (The Wire) and ABC (Jimmy Kimmel Live!). Munch has been one of the few television characters to cross genres, appearing not only in crime drama series, but sitcom (Arrested Development), late night comedy (Jimmy Kimmel Live!) and horror and science fiction (The X-Files).[42] He has played a role in international television series, beginning with UK crime drama Luther where he is mentioned as an American contact for the series' Serious Crime Unit (SCU). Notably Luther stars Idris Elba, the actor who played Stringer Bell in the HBO drama The Wire where Munch previously cameoed.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Episode 5.17, "Kaddish"
  2. ^ Smith, Van. "Homicide, Revisited", Baltimore City Paper, December 10, 2013.
  3. ^ Simon, David (1991, 2006). Homicide, A Year on the Killing Streets. New York: Owl Books. p. hoto insert section.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  4. ^ Mendoza, Manuel (2003-06-11). "Revisit 'Life on the Street'". The Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas). p. 1E. 
  5. ^ Levinson, Barry (2003). Homicide Life on the Street: The Seasons 1 & 2 (Audio commentary) (DVD). A&E Home Video. 
  6. ^ Homicide: Life on the Street episode "Gone for Goode"
  7. ^ Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode "Alternate"
  8. ^ Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode "Savant"
  9. ^ Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode "Turmoil"
  10. ^ The Wire episode "Took"
  11. ^ In 1958, Maryland required students complete 12th grade to receive a diploma.
  12. ^ Homicide: Life on the Street episode "A Many Splendored Thing"
  13. ^ Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode "Legacy"
  14. ^ Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episodes "Legacy" and "Manhunt"
  15. ^ Homicide: Life on the Street episode "Kaddish"
  16. ^ Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode "Entitled, Part I".
  17. ^ Law & Order episode "Entitled, Part II".
  18. ^ Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode 5.13 "Painless"
  19. ^ Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode "Uncle"
  20. ^ Law & Order episode "Sideshow", originally aired February 17, 1999.
  21. ^ Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode "Disrobed"
  22. ^ Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode "Limitations"
  23. ^ Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode "Honor"
  24. ^ Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode "Raw"
  25. ^ Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode "Sacrifice"
  26. ^ Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode "Trials"
  27. ^ Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode "Internal Affairs"
  28. ^ Stanhope, Kate (November 1, 2011). "Andre Braugher on SVU: "He May Be the Enemy, But He's Not a Villain". TV Guide. Retrieved November 14, 2011. 
  29. ^ Homicide: Life on the Street episode Kaddish"
  30. ^ Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode "Stalked"
  31. ^ Law and Order: Special Victims Unit season 2 episode "Legacy"
  32. ^ Homicide: Life on the Street episode "Gone for Goode"
  33. ^ a b Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode "Payback"
  34. ^ The X-Files episode "Unusual Suspects"
  35. ^ Homicide: Life on the Street episode "Forgive Us Our Trespasses"
  36. ^ Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode "Slaves"
  37. ^ Homicide: Life on the Street episode "God and For Country"
  38. ^ Law & Order: Special Victims Unit season 6 episode "Parts"
  39. ^ Law & Order: Special Victims Unit season 1 episode "Russian Love Poem"
  40. ^ "Belzer Wants More Episodes". Contact Music. December 11, 2007. Retrieved April 6, 2012. 
  41. ^ Green, Susan and Randee Dawn. Law and Order: Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion. Dallas: Benbella Books, 2009. pp. 150–51.
  42. ^ http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0004858/

External links[edit]