"THE BELZ: Act One" FADE IN.
INTERIOR: COMEDY CLUB/WASHINGTON -- NIGHT
Easy, babe. First we got to steer clear of Dupont Circle. Yeah, it's Friday night and you're missing "Homicide," but Richard Belzer is doing stand-up comedy at the Improv, somewhere in unparkable Washington.
"He came a long way to entertain you," the opening act announces at 11: 30. Then Belzer dawns, a reed in black with a face Keith Richards would envy. Shades mask Belzer's baby browns. Yeah, I really broke my ass to be here.
Belzer came all the way from Baltimore, where a role on the NBC drama "Homicide" has transformed his career. I play Detective John Munch, and I'm having the time of my life, Belzer says at the Improv.
In "Homicide's" one-hour plays, John Munch is a one-man Greek Chorus. "He says what everyone else is thinking," says executive producer Tom Fontana. "He just talks the truth." Munch is rude, insensitive and would be shot dead by his own if he wasn't so damn right all the time.
And Munch, bless his carping heart, has delivered Richard Belzer to Baltimore. The 52-year-old actor and comedian has become a Charm City fixture: His mug is on coffee mugs, he shares the air with Marc Steiner, he even lights up Baltimore's Washington Monument at Christmas. Belzer spreads himself thinner supporting local causes from public radio to private hospitals.
He's everywhere. There, he's walking along Thames Street. No, you go up to him and tell him you love the show. He probably gets that all the time. He just looks like he belongs on "X-Files." Well, babe, you took too long because there he goes ...
L Right before our eyes, Richard Belzer has turned the corner.
INTERIORS: EXPLORERS CLUB/HARBOR COURT HOTEL: AFTERNOON
"Our first flowers in bloom," says Harlee McBride, peeling through a photo album. Her husband of 12 years, Richard Belzer, is the family photographer; McBride is the woman in the hat, pictured often in their French jardin. By the looks of it, Belzer is wild about McBride and Old English roses. His photography is downright sunny.
L Owning a home in France must do this to a road-tested cynic.
"I know," McBride says, "it's so un-him." Belzer's reputation is restored by a Belzer photograph of "The Big Book of Conspiracies." (Tip: Don't get him started on the Warren Commission.)
Deep in the jungle of the Explorers Club, a glass of Silverado wine and a champagne cocktail appear. McBride air-lifts two walnuts from the nut bowl; she's read somewhere that walnuts contain a cancer-fighting agent. Belzer successfully slugged his way through testicular cancer in 1983, so pass them walnuts.
Belzer witnessed friends John Belushi and Freddie Prinze self-destruct on drugs, but it was cancer that seized his attention. Radiation treatments can make a man switch from cocaine & co. to yoga. Belzer calls cancer a cosmic slap in the face. The point is he changed his act.
"No matter what happens, his will is so strong," McBride says. "It's his best feature."
Belzer and McBride met a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Los Angeles, 1981. It was a simpler time, a time before police recognized Belzer from TV. Actress Harlee McBride was doing Ford commercials and free theater. Nothing great. She made a soft-porn movie called "Young Lady Chatterly" and she was pictured in Playboy. That wasn't the ticket, either.
At 31 and divorced, "I was trying to find out what I like to do alone," McBride says. "I like to laugh is what I like."
No better place than the comedy clubs, where Robin Williams, Steve Martin and Richard Lewis were working. A friend told her: Harlee, you gotta meet Richard Belzer. "They referred to him as 'The King,' " she says. Well, "I didn't come to meet some struggling comedian."
But bring me a bottle of champagne, and we'll see, she said. What McBride saw was a twice-divorced comic with a perm. "I thought he looked like an accountant."
"So, you're a comedian," she began. "Are you funny?"
"Are you beautiful?" Belzer said. His timing was perfect.
All right, so he's funny and quick, McBride thought. The next scene is her West Hollywood apartment, where friends have crashed. It's just funny Belzer and beautiful McBride having cocktails. "I told him the beds are full, and he gave me a look that was so sweet," she says. "Then he gave me a little hug, just a
little hug to say it's OK."
She hugged back and "we melted into each other's arms." Belzer is this sweetheart of a soul, McBride says.
"That's a jackpot for most women," she says. "He just wasn't successful at the time."
INTERIORS COMEDY CLUB/MANHATTAN: NIGHT, LATE.
In the early 1970s, 20 years before Munch, Richard Belzer was simply known as No. 12. He was the 12th nobody auditioning to emcee at Rick Newman's club on First Avenue between 77th and 78th in Manhattan. Belzer was asked back for the next seven years, and the main room at Catch a Rising Star became Belzer's Court.