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Jewish actor and comedian Richard Belzer, who was famous for his longtime role as Detective John Munch on Law & Order and in guest appearances, has died at the age of 78.

Born in 1944 in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Belzer began his career as a comedian, with three supporting stints on Saturday Night live between 1975 and 1980 while also working on the show as a warm-up act.

He began to appear in television shows and in 1993 started the role that made him famous as Detective John Munch, parlaying the character into appearances on other shows such as The Wire and The X-Files. However, his role as Munch on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit turned him into a well known actor who was known as a fan favourite on the long running series.

He played the character on over 300 episodes of the show before leaving after the 15th season.

Universal Television and NBC released a joint statement on Sunday: "Anyone who ever had the pleasure of watching Richard Belzer portray Det. John Munch – whether on Homicide or Law & Order: SVU – over four decades will never forget how much he inhabited that beloved character to make it his own," said the statement. "His professionalism, talents and dedication to the craft made him a pillar in the industry, but it was his humor, compassion and loving heart that made him family.

Law & Order creator Dick Wolf praised Belzer as being behind "one of television's iconic characters.”

“Richard brought humor and joy into all our lives, was the consummate professional, and we will all miss him very much,” he said on Instagram.

His co-star on the show, Mariska Hargitay, also offered her condolences in an Instagram post.

“Goodbye my dear, dear friend. I will miss you, your unique light, and your singular take on this strange world," she wrote. "I feel blessed to have known you and adored you and worked with you, side by side, for so many years. How lucky the angels are to have you. I can hear them laughing already."