Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

The Mystery Wives of John Munch

Ah, summertime. Once again, we’re in the first week of August, aka Munch Week, a time when a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of Munch. Specifically, John Munch, the detective played by the wonderful Richard Belzer on Homicide: Life on the Street, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, and eight other television series. This year is a very special Munch Week, because we’re also celebrating the 75th birthday of the fellow who plays him, Richard Belzer. Happy Birthday, Belz!

I thought I’d mark this Munch Week by trying to fill in one of the big mysteries of John Munch’s biography. (Munch’s backstory has a lot of contradictions, some of which I’ll be getting into later on this week.)

One of the basic bits of info we know about John Munch is that, infamously, he’s been married and divorced four times. But over Munch’s 23 years of being featured on TV, we’ve only met two of his four exes: His first wife, Gwen, played by Carol Kane on both Homicide and SVU, and his fourth, Billie Lou Hatfield, played by Ellen McElduff, who he married on the last episode of Homicide, and was divorced from by the first episode of SVU.

Munch Wives Gwen Billie Lou
Here’s Billie Lou and Gwen at Munch’s 2013 retirement party on SVU. Nice of them to drop by.

Gwen had mental issues that led to the end of her and John’s marriage when she would not stay on her medication. According to Munch, she took his alimony and opened up a restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen. She also had a brief relationship with Law and Order‘s Lennie Briscoe sometime after she and Munch broke up, much to Munch’s chagrin.

Billie Lou was a recurring character on the sixth and seventh seasons of Homicide, where she was a bartender at Munch’s bar, the Waterfront. Munch’s fellow Homicide detective Stu Gharty was a rival for her affections. Munch claimed in the first episode of SVU that Billie Lou had cheated on him with one of the other detectives in the Homicide Unit, but it was revealed in Homicide: The Movie that this was a lie Munch made up to save face. (“New York cops, they’ll believe anything.”) So we still don’t really know what led to the breakup of the marriage.

And that’s it. We’ve never seen Wives Two and Three, or even heard much about them, as those marriages occurred off-screen, before Homicide started. We don’t know when Munch got married to either one of them, or why the marriages broke up. We don’t even know their names.

(*Edit: Actually, I take that back. We possibly DO know their names. Last night, I watched the third season Homicide episode “Nothing Personal.” One of the subplots is Munch, Lewis, and Bayliss finalizing their purchase of the Waterfront Bar. As they’re turning over their checks, Munch has this intriguing bit of dialogue:

I wish Felicia could see me now. I wish Gwen and Nancy and Maria, and every woman in Baltimore would step up to the plate. This’ll brush them back, don’t you think? They think they can dig in and swing for the bleachers on me? They’ll be looking at John Munch with new eyes now, hey?

Now, this was relatively early in the series’ run, back in the era when Munch was saying that he had only two ex-wives, not three (one of Homicide‘s rare continuity errors). Felicia was Munch’s on-again/off-again girlfriend, constantly mentioned in the first & second seasons, but never seen onscreen. And when this line was written, I’m sure that all of those names were probably only intended to be ex-girlfriends, like Felicia. But the mention of “Gwen,” who later established to be Munch’s first ex-wife, makes me think that Nancy and Maria are equally significant in Munch’s life. Because really, if you’re mentioning your first ex, doesn’t it make sense to then name the next two, particularly in order? I’m now really wondering if this line of dialogue was the place where Munch having three ex-wives instead of two first originated. If the writers went back and grabbed the name “Gwen” from this episode for Munch’s first ex, they probably then started to think of the next two names as other ex-wives of Munch. Because of this, I now definitely think that Nancy and Maria are the most likely names for John Munch’s second and third ex-wives. You heard it here first, people! End of digression.)

We also have some extra info to go by. As a police psychiatrist said to Munch in the season one SVU episode “Slaves,” “You’ve been married multiple times. Each wife was beautiful, but not one matched you intellectually. […] You’ve given up on relationships. But you still believe in true love. [And] the pain of never having found it is unbearable.” In the season 13 SVU episode “Street Revenge,” Munch implies that at least one of his ex-wives was Italian with the comment, “That right there is why I stopped marrying Italian women” when he sees his colleague Nick Amaro arguing with his wife in the squad room. And in the Homicide episode “M.E., Myself, and I,” Munch says, “All told I’ve had seven anniversaries… eight if you count the time I slept with Gwen after our divorce.”

So I thought it might be fun to imagine if Homicide or SVU had featured Munch’s other former flames, and cast them as if they’d been guest stars on either of those shows. Here are the ground rules:

  1. All of our potential Mrs. Munches must be character actresses born in the either in the 1940s or 1950s (to be age-appropriate to Richard Belzer), working during the years that Homicide and SVU aired (so, 1993 to the present day), and potentially available to do a guest-starring role.
  2. They must all be beautiful (not a tough requirement for Hollywood), and at least a few of them must be Italian or have Italian heritage.
  3. Most importantly, they must all be quirky enough to imagine them going toe-to-toe with John Munch/Richard Belzer.
  4. And, since Homicide never reused actors in different parts, they can’t have appeared on Homicide in another role. That leaves out such notables as Alfre Woodard, Lily Tomlin, Edie Falco, and Belzer’s own wife, Harlee McBride, who had a recurring role on the series as M.E. Alyssa Dyer. Valerie Perrine is also out, as she played Brigitta Svendsen, an ex-girlfriend of Munch’s, in the Homicide episode “Law and Disorder.” It’s fine if an actress has appeared in a Law & Order or SVU episode, though, as those shows reuse actors all of the time.

So, after a bit of contemplation and some Googling, here’s who I came up with. Behold, the Top 12 Ex-Mrs. Munches!

Glenne FHeadly

1. Glenne Headly
My number one choice. Headly was great in such movies as Dick Tracy, Mr. Holland’s Opus, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, paired up with leading men like Warren Beatty, Richard Dreyfuss, Michael Caine, and Steve Martin. In real life, she was married to John Malkovich for a few years. She was always fun to see on screen, as she made everything she was in better. And when I think about the sound and the rhythm of Headly’s voice, I can just imagine her getting into one hell of an argument with our favorite Homicide detective. She would have been stunning as an ex-Mrs. Munch.

Jennifer Tilly2. Jennifer Tilly
Tilly was nominated for an Oscar for 1994’s Bullets Over Broadway, and has also made memorable appearances in Bound, Liar Liar, and The Fabulous Baker Boys. With her high voice and bombshell figure, she’s played a lot of bimbo-type roles. She’d be great as a beautiful spouse who wasn’t up to Munch’s level intellectually. I could totally see Tilly as the oft-referred-to but never-seen Felicia from the early episodes of Homicide.

Shelley Duvall3. Shelley Duvall
A veteran of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, Shelley Duvall certainly knows how to play a beleaguered wife. Duvall was a regular member of director Robert Altman’s ensemble in the 1970s, appearing in Nashville, Brewster McCloud, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Comic fans may also remember her as Olive Oyl from Altman’s 1980 Popeye movie. Sadly, I discovered in researching this piece that Duvall retired in 2002 and is suffering from mental illness. We at the AJS wish her the best.

Allison Janney4. Allison Janney
Born in November of 1959, Janney just sneaks in under the age requirement to be our youngest prospective Mrs. Munch. She first gained attention in the 1998 political satire Primary Colors, which won her the part of C.J. Gregg on The West Wing, a role for which she won four Emmys. These days, she’s starring on the CBS sitcom Mom. I could see Janney as a Mrs. Munch who quickly tires of Munch’s shit, and yet never fails to call him out on it.

Isabella Rossellini5. Isabella Rossellini
One of the most glamorous leading ladies in Hollywood history, Isabella certainly fulfills the Italian requirement for one of our ex-Mrs. Munches. She’s best known for movies like Blue Velvet and Death Becomes Her, but she’s also guest-starred on television shows like Friends, Tales from the Crypt, and 30 Rock. She even won an Emmy for a 1997 guest appearance on Chicago Hope. And she’s lived in America since 1979, so she would be available to guest star as an exotic former wife of Munch’s.

Beverly D'Angelo6. Beverly D’Angelo
D’Angelo is best known these days as Ellen Griswold from the National Lampoon’s Vacation movies, but she’s done a lot more than that. She won a Golden Globe for playing Patsy Cline in the 1980’s Coal Miner’s Daughter, and also appeared in the movies Annie Hall, Hair, and American History X. She was also one of the most memorable Simpsons guest stars ever, as the country music singer Lurleen Lumpkin. For that reason, I’m thinking she could play a singer of some kind who Munch loved onstage, but couldn’t stand offstage.

Anjelica Huston7. Anjelica Huston
An Oscar winner for 1985’s Prizzi’s Honor and a great comedic presence as Morticia Addams in the Addams Family movies of the 90s, Anjelica Huston would be a wonderfully intimidating ex-Mrs. Munch. I can see her silencing one of his rants with just a single icy stare. And hell, if she could handle Jack Nicholson for all those years, John Munch should be a piece of cake.

Christine Baranski

8. Christine Baranski
A 15-time Emmy nominee, Baranski is known for Cybill, The Good Wife and its spin-off The Good Fight, as well as a recurring role on The Big Bang Theory as Leonard’s mother, Dr. Beverly Hofstadter. Since Baranski just exudes intelligence, I might have a tough time buying that she wasn’t Munch’s intellectual equal, but man, it’d be fun watching the fireworks.

Bebe Neuwrith Richard Belzer9. Bebe Neuwirth
Viewers still remember Neuwirth as one of TV’s all-time great ex-wives, Lilth Sternin-Crane on Cheers and Frasier. She guest-starred on a season six episode of SVU, so she’s worked with Belzer before. She’s also had a brilliant stage career, getting her start in A Chorus Line, and having memorable turns in Sweet Charity and Chicago. I was lucky enough to see her as Morticia Addams opposite Nathan Lane as Gomez in The Addams Family on Broadway years ago, and she was absolutely terrific. For variety’s sake, I think it’d be fun to see her play an ex of Munch’s that was completely the opposite of Lilith, a total bimbo who has a background as a Broadway dancer. Sparks would fly!

Teri Garr10. Teri Garr
You know Teri Garr from Young Frankenstein, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Tootsie, which earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. And, like Bebe Neuwirth, she also guest-starred on SVU before. Like Duvall, Garr is now retired from acting due to health issues, but she was still killing it in the 90s, guest starring on Friends as Phoebe’s mother, and making memorable guest appearances on David Letterman’s shows. She definitely would’ve had the comedic chops to go toe-to-toe with Belzer.

Pam Grier11. Pam Grier
I also considered Tamara Dobson, fellow blaxploitation star of Cleopatra Jones and a native of Homicide‘s setting of Baltimore, but in the end, I had to go with Grier. C’mon, how can you not love the idea of Munch being married to Foxy Brown? Grier was undergoing a career resurgence in the late 90s when Homicide was on, thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. She’d be great as a sassy, brassy, ex-Mrs. Munch who took no shit from anyone. And hey, if you want to hear a cool story, check out this one on Grier’s IMDb page about how she got her part in Tim Burton’s movie Mars Attacks! Because of that story, I’m now imagining that she and Munch broke up over the custody of their dog.

Elayne Boosler12. Elayne Boosler
Since over the years Belzer’s fellow stand-ups Robin Williams, Howie Mandel, and Jerry Lewis have guest-starred on Homicide and SVU, I thought it’d be fun to have one of the Belz’s stand-up peers play one of Munch’s exes. Boosler was the first person that came to mind. Boosler came up in the same 1970s generation of comics as Belzer, Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Jimmie Walker, and Andy Kaufman (who was her live-in boyfriend for a number of years). The character of Elaine Benes in Seinfeld is named after her. She also the first female stand-up to get her own hour-long special. Boosler has been married since 2007, but on her IMDb quotes page is this gem: “I’ve never been married, but I tell people I’m divorced so they won’t think something is wrong with me.” Sounds like a Munch made in heaven.

So what do you think? Can you see any of these great actresses as an ex-Mrs. Munch? Got somebody else you like better? Let me know in the comments!

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  1. Edo Bosnar

    Hmm, some interesting choices.
    An actress that immediately came to mind for some reason is Betty Buckley (the step-mom in Eight is Enough among other roles). However, it seems like she would have been the first wife, who married Much while young and then quickly became exasperated with his crap. Also, it might be hard to believe that she’s not an intellectual match for him, unless that’s interpreted to also include someone who outmatches him.

    As for the Italian wife, there’s also Talia Shire (nee Coppola), especially in full scheming mode as in Godfather III – you’d see why Munch wouldn’t have been too keen on hanging around after the initial passion dies down a bit.
    Or Bernadette Peters (nee Lazzara) who seems like a perfect match and/or foil for Munch.

    By the way, the admittedly delightful Bebe Neuwirth was also the main star of yet another, short-lived Law & Order spin-off, Trial by Jury, so she’s a little too much a part of the L&O universe to be believable as one of Munch’s exes.

    1. I actually considered both Talia Shire and Bernadette Peters, but the list was already long enough as is. I originally tried to keep it as a Top 10, but I added Beverly D’Angelo and Bebe Neuwirth back in on my last pass.

      I’d totally forgotten that Neuwirth was one of the stars of Trial by Jury, but that show was canceled so quickly, I think I’m safe.

      Betty Buckley is a great suggestion! Consider her an honorary Munchette. 🙂

      1. Edo Bosnar

        Since you’ve included the probably too-young Alison Janney (although I understand your reasoning), why not Ms. Ciccone herself, Madonna (b. 1958)? She certainly ticks off the beautiful and Italian boxes, and I can see her in a stormy and brief marriage with Munch.

        1. I finally found the time to rewatch “Heartbeat,” and yep, you’re right! Howard tells Munch, “I’ve seen the wreckage of your love life. Wife number one, Gwen. Wife number two, Maria. Not to mention the various and sundry girlfriends. Felicia, Brigitta…” She later says to Munch, “It’s no wonder two wives left you.”

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