IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Belzer isn't a cop; he just plays one on TV

Richard Belzer, who has played the role of Detective John Munch on "Law & Order" for ten seasons, blends fact and fiction in his debut mystery, "I Am Not a Cop." An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

Richard Belzer, who has played the role of Detective John Munch on "Law & Order" for ten seasons, blends fact and fiction in his debut mystery, "I Am Not a Cop." An excerpt.

Chapter one
I am not a cop. Really.

I've just been playing one on television so long that people get a little confused sometimes. It's understandable. I've been at this game for a bunch of years, looking at corpses and bruised runaways all over New York and Baltimore, trying to ask the right questions, trying to find the right bad guy. Or girl, if that's the case.

Of course, when I'm through studying the corpse, somebody yells "Cut," and the body gets up and joins the rest of us on the way to the catering tent for a lunch break.

But it isn't just the general public that gets my role and my life mixed up. Sometimes when I leave the set after a long week's shoot, I'll hit the street and hope to catch a cab. A lot of times, a patrol car will pull over instead and offer to take me where I want to go.

"Mr. Belzer, or should I say 'Detective'?" the cop will say. "Need a lift?"

And hey, I'm not too proud to take the guys up on it, especially when it's raining and cabs are hard to find. Sometimes I even do ride-alongs with the NYPD and sit around precinct houses to soak up the atmosphere, learn the vernacular, and get the moves right.

So, as a consequence, between the cops who consult on the series, the cops I talk with in my everyday life, and the people I work with who act like cops, I sometimes feel like I've slipped into some kind of law enforcement twilight zone — a place where the role I play and the person I am threaten to overlap. Poor old Rod Serling would be proud of me, though. I think I remember an episode like that from when I was a kid. I loved that show.

But I digress. Now, where was I? Oh, the twilight zone of law enforcement, where make-believe and reality overlap.

Take that whole thing that happened in Brighton Beach, for instance ... 

I left the set Friday night in late September to meet a friend for dinner. (Harlee, my lovely wife, was across the pond at our house in France with our adored dogs Django, a border collie-Beauceron mix, and Bebe, a poodle-fox terrier mix who rescued me in France. My wife is a master gardener who loves to toil in the soil, an interior decorator of supreme taste, and an astounding cook, among many other things for which I am eternally grateful.) Having some empty time to fill, I figured I might catch up with an old buddy.

The guy I was meeting was a soon-to-be former medical examiner, a Russian immigrant named Rudy Markovich. I'd met him a few years ago when he visited our set as a consultant for a morgue scene. He looked things over and promptly turned to this young director, who thought he was a hotshot, and said with a thick Russian accent, "Dat is not how ve do it."

I liked Rudy immediately.

He was rather short and had a squarish physique. Very European-looking. I figured him for his late forties, but his hair had gone totally gray. He wore it short and had bright blue eyes and a contagious smile. After the scene I walked up to him and said, "Zdravstvujtye," one of the few Russian greetings I knew. I had had to learn them a few years ago for a part in a Commie spy movie that never got filmed. But the phrases stayed with me. I have a very good memory. Some people describe it as photographic, but I prefer the term closet genius, if asked.

Rudy was delighted and started rattling off sentences so fast I had to hold up my hands and say, "Whoa." I explained that I'd already just about exhausted my entire Russian vocabulary, and he said, "Never mind, I speak five languages. That's enough for both of us."

He proceeded to prove it too, as I took him over to the tent for a cup of coffee.

I got a thumbnail sketch of Rudy's life. He'd emigrated from the then Soviet Union as a young doctor and found work cutting open the dead in the Big Apple, then worked his way up in the medical examiner's office; he started listing some of the famous cases he'd handled. In his day, Rudy had autopsied lots of high-profile dead guys for the City of New York. Everybody from politicians to Broadway royalty to business tycoons. His work had helped New York's finest, for whom I have nothing but respect, crack some really tough cases. As we had coffee that day, he told me some real amusing stories about the good old days, and some even better ones about the bad ones. His depth of knowledge about so many more subjects than medicine made him a great conversationalist. We became fast friends, and I got the impression he was a man on the move, so it didn't surprise me when I later read that he had been considered the front-runner to replace the current chief medical examiner. I know he sure helped our actors sound better and made our scenes much more realistic.

But apparently some things in his life had recently changed. Rudy had sworn off dead people and announced his resignation two days before that Friday in September. It was effective at month's end, and he'd told the reporters he was going into private practice. I guessed that maybe he thought it might be easier when his patients could talk back, but hell, the dead ones could never disagree with a diagnosis or sue him for malpractice. It seemed a strange move to me — going from being a towering expert in one field of medicine in the Manhattan ME's office to possibly starting over as a general practitioner in someplace like a Brighton Beach strip mall. But I figured it was his call to make.

Still, I wondered how long his enthusiasm for patient/physician repartee was going to last. I had a sneaking suspicion the novelty would wear off soon enough. The dead may not talk, but they don't lie either. That's the big plus in having corpses as patients: the dead have no interest in hiding the truth.

Rudy called me right after the announcement and asked if we could meet up and talk about a few things.

I'd said sure, and he'd invited me over for dinner in his neighborhood — a little ethnic place called Dimitri's, where the menus are printedtwice, once in Russian and once in English. It's a great place for borscht, not to mention fine Ossetra caviar on savory little blini with a dollop of sour cream. Man, I couldn't wait.

Dimitri Gromyko, the proprietor, grinned broadly at me as I walked in. The place was very, very Russian. Dark walls, scarlet drapes drooping to the floor, subdued lighting, closely spaced tables, and a musical group singing folk songs in the native tongue. He greeted me with "Dobro pozhalovat, Richard." I replied with my best attempt to sound Russian. Dimitri's bright teeth appeared underneath his bushy mustache. "Rudy is waiting at his usual table."

I walked back past the bar where bottles of fine vodka lined the shelves, past the little stage where the quartet was singing some song that sounded suspiciously like "Back in the USSR," and through the narrow aisles of tables, each covered with a nice white tablecloth. The place had a savory smell that was all its own.

Rudy looked deep in thought. His head jerked suddenly as I sat opposite him, then he nodded.

"Belz, good evening."

"You look like a man with a lot on his mind," I said. He'd already ordered two glasses of Stolichnaya for us. His was now empty. A waiter came by and filled it up. He looked at me, like he expected me to down it in one shot and get a refill, but I needed something in my stomach first. I'm not a whiskey-and-a-raw-egg-for-breakfast kind of guy.

"I'll wait a bit on that," I said. "In the meantime, give me some coffee."

He nodded, set a basket of bread down on the table, and left, taking the bottle of Stoli with him.

"And where is your beautiful wife?" Rudy asked.

"Harlee's in France at the moment," I said. "I'm on my own for a few weeks while we wrap up this round of shooting."

"Ah, the television show. It goes well?"

"You tell me. You haven't been watching it?"

"Of course I have. I wouldn't miss my dearest friend in action."

"Now I know you want something," I said, grinning, "laying a compliment like that on me before we've even decided who's going to pick up the check." I saw a hint of something in his eyes. A catch, a hesitation. "What's bothering you?"

He lifted his eyebrows and tried to cover. "No, no, I merely wanted to ask you something."


His face twitched fractionally, as if my metaphor had slapped him. He recovered quickly. "I know you're very well schooled in police work, yes?"

I waited for him to continue.

"Then you must know quite a bit about police work."

"Yeah, I've done a few ride-alongs with the cops now and then. Why?"

He compressed his lips, looked at me for a hard five seconds, and said, "I have a somewhat delicate matter for which I may need some police advice."

"Hey, I am not a cop," I said with a grin. "I only play one on TV."

"I know you have some good friends on the force."

"As I'm sure you do. How many years did you spend with the ME's office?"

He took a deep breath, but just then our waiter showed up with my coffee and two menus. After he set everything in front of us, he said he'd be back.

"You were saying ... "

His head shook, his mouth twisting slightly. "Nothing. It is not important. I had a matter about which I wished to get some advice, but I will tell you about it another time."

I figured it was best to wait until he was ready. Far be it from me to pry into someone else's problems. Eventually, they seem to always have a way of morphing into your own.

"And at the moment, I have something else of much greater import." Rudy held up two tickets of some kind. I tried to see what they were, but he kept them facedown as he handed me one and said, "Alexi's fight tomorrow night at the Garden. I know how much you love boxing matches."

Alexi Zotkin was the reigning heavyweight champ for one of the alpha-bet organizations that had splintered the boxing game for the past three decades. He'd been listed as the best of the growing numbers of Eastern European boxers who'd started their training in old Soviet-era Russia as young teenagers, and then turned pro after the fall and had come to Amer-ica hoping to make the big bucks. Alexi had succeeded. The sports page had recently run a feature on him under the headline "The Russians Aren't Coming, They're Here." Not only was he one of the three current champs, he was also recognized by Ring Magazine as the number one heavyweight, which was almost as good as having your name engraved on the official Ring belt.

I started to hand the ticket back to him, but he made a little shooing gesture with his fingers. All I could think to say was "Wow."

Rudy grinned. "I have two tickets in the third row. I was hoping you'd be interested in accompanying me there so we can watch Alexi get one step closer to unifying the title."

"Even the old KGB couldn't stop me."

That one made him grimace. I should have known better. He'd told me once — after we'd pretty much polished off a bottle of old Stoli by ourselves — of his early youth under the Soviets. "It vas all secret police and terror," he'd said, his accent growing thicker under the influence of the booze. Tonight, as he sat across from me, his clear blue eyes hinted at his previous life under the oppressors. In his case, Big Brother did a lot more than just watch. "I still have a mistrust of police, even in this country. I remember how I could never bring myself to trust them completely." He shook his head again. "Power brings corruption, and absolute power..."

"Corrupts absolutely," I said.

"Let us hope," he said now, "that they don't try."

"Seriously, Rudy, what's going on? If there's anything I can do — "

He raised his hand. "You are a good friend, Richard, and that is enough for right now. I need a bit more time to collect my thoughts, perhaps write a few things down to clear my head. We will talk more at the match tomorrow night."

I knew that was all I'd get out of him on that subject. As friendly as he was, when Rudy didn't want to discuss something, he'd draw his own Iron Curtain closed, and that was that. Instead, we ate and drank and talked about everything from boxing predictions to political ones. He'd been following the recent upheavals in his old homeland near Kiev and commented that he was afraid things would one day devolve to the way they used to be.

"It ain't New York," I said. "That's for sure."

I saw a sadness flicker across his eyes, so when he changed the subject back to boxing, I went along, figuring I'd let him decide if and when he wanted to bring up whatever it was that was bothering him. After a lengthy good-bye to Dimitri, we went outside and I waved to the cab he'd been kind enough to summon for me. All at once a guy popped up and a flash illuminated the night. Luckily, I was still wearing my sunglasses.

"You're Richard Belzer, the TV star, right?" the guy asked, and snapped another picture. "Who's your friend?"

"He's the guy who might do your autopsy if you don't knock it off with the camera," I said.

"Okay, sorry, man." He lowered his hands and retreated to a respectful distance, probably pondering the effects of a flash with a zoom lens.

"Who is he?" Rudy asked. "Paparazzi?"

"Probably," I said, giving the guy my best cold-eyed stare.

"Do you want me to drop you off?" he asked. "I have my car nearby."

"And take you out of your way to Manhattan?" I shook my head. The cab pulled forward and stopped by the curb. I opened the rear door and saw the guy had his hand on his meter already. Rudy stepped over and gave me a sudden embrace. Once again, very Russian.

"Hey," I said, "you're not going to try to kiss me, are you? Like that guy did to Bogey in Casablanca." Then I kissed him.

He laughed and shook his head. "Tomorrow night, then? At the Garden?"

"I wouldn't miss it." As I started to get in, I noticed the lines in his face deepening. "You okay?"

"Yes, fine."

He didn't look fine. Once again he looked like a guy with a lot on his mind. I decided to try drawing him out one last time. "What about that matter you wanted advice about? When you mention the cops, that does kinda get my attention."

"Sir," the cabbie said. "I am going to start the meter at this time, please."

Even though I only had one foot inside. You gotta love New York.

I felt like telling him not to get his khakis in a knot, and I started to extricate my foot. If Rudy needed to talk, I'd send this dude scurrying for another fare. But Rudy reached out and laid his palm on my shoulder.

"We will discuss it another time," he said, glancing over at the impudent photographer. "Tomorrow, at the fight. In the street you never know who might be listening."

"Now you're sounding very Russian," I said.

He started to say something more, then his hand slowly slipped from my shoulder and he looked down. "Good-bye, Richard."

At the time I thought he'd mistaken "Good-bye" for "Good night." I watched him walk slowly away into the darkness. I got all the way into the cab and gave my address, but just as we pulled away from the curb, a movement caught my eye. I tapped on the screen and told the driver to slow down.

Three dark figures struggled in an alleyway, and one of them was Rudy. I yelled for the cabbie to stop and jumped out the door, leaving the driver behind screaming for his fare.

One guy had Rudy's arms pinned behind his back while the other one stood in front, delivering some mean body blows. Their voices were low and guttural, speaking in some foreign tongue I thought sounded like Russian. The puncher turned in the midst of throwing another gut shot, saw me, and pivoted around, throwing it my way instead. I let the punch sail past my face, then smacked his temple with the heel of my hand, using his momentum to push him down. The other guy tossed Rudy aside like a rag doll and reached into his pants pocket. Seconds later a flash of silver glinted with an accompanying snick.

A switchblade. It'd been a long time since I'd seen one of those. A real one, anyway.

He lunged forward with the knife, trying to slash my face. I pivoted and grabbed his hand with both of mine. I pulled the arm forward, down, and then up and back as I stepped inside, shifting my weight. He was bigger than I was, but the momentum was just right, and his feet skidded out from under him as I slammed him down hard, maintaining control of the wrist until I saw the knife skitter to the pavement.

As I started to reach for it, I spotted movement out of the corner of my eye. The other guy was up and coming at me. I kicked the blade away from us and whirled around, executing one of the best sidekicks I'd thrown since I'd knocked out the heavy bag at the dojang. It caught him just where I'd aimed — right in the lower gut area, just below the belt and above the balls. A perfect spot for causing some real gastric disturbances.

Something else flashed and I saw Mr. Paparazzi was back, snapping more pictures. I hoped the idiot had had the presence of mind to call 911 first.

The thugs saw the flashes too. They struggled to their feet and stumbled off in a half-assed run.

I stooped down and plucked the switchblade off the ground just as another damn flash seared my retina. "One more of those, dickhead, and I'll shove this up your ass," I said, holding up the knife. That was a mistake, because the guy called my bluff and the flash popped again.

"Man, that was awesome," he said. "You know karate or something?"

"Or something," I said, turning and helping Rudy to his feet. "Are you all right?"

"Ah, yes ... " His words came out in shallow gasps. "I am fine, thanks to you."

Another flash.

I turned. "Make yourself useful, and go call the cops, will you, butthead?"

"No," Rudy managed to say. "No police."

"What?" I said. "Those two guys tried to — "

"It is not important," he said, regaining his composure. "Just a couple of muggers. You dealt with them most effectively."

"Rudy — "

"No, Richard. Please." He finally managed to straighten himself all the way up, both hands pressing in on his stomach. "I am fine. Thanks to you." His voice sounded nervous and obviously strained. "I did not know you were so skilled. Was that sambo?"

"A kissing cousin." Sambo was the Russian martial art combining wrestling moves with joint locks. I'd never formally studied that one. "Sort of a hybrid combination of kung fu and hapkido, actually. Was that Russian those guys were speaking to you?"

Rudy shook his head. "Ukrainian."

Another flash illuminated the night. I glared at the guy, wondering if he'd gotten my good side, 'cause he was sure gonna see my bad one in about thirty seconds. I pulled out my cell phone but felt Rudy's hand on my arm.

"Richard, please. Let's leave."

I nodded and helped him to the still-waiting cab. "We'll give you a ride to your car," I said. I looked up and saw the driver with a relieved smile stretched across his swarthy features.

"I apologize for not recognizing you sooner, sir," he said. "You are Mr. Steven Seagal, are you not? I have seen all of your movies. Very nice disguise, sir."

Marvelous, I thought. But at least he wasn't commenting on my acting ability.

"Excerpted by "I Am Not a Cop" by Richard Belzer with Michael Black. Copyright © 2008 by McBelz Enterprises, Inc. Reprinted with permission from Simon & Schuster.