The Law and Order: SVU family is honoring one of their own.
Nearly one year after the death of Richard Belzer—who played Sgt. John Munch for the first 15 seasons—his costars on the long-running NBC procedural paid tribute to the late actor while celebrating SVU's major milestone.
In fact, Mariska Hargitay believes that while Richard is no longer here physically, his spirit is still alive and well.
"Belzer's so deeply embedded and enmeshed in my heart," she told E! News in an exclusive interview at the Law & Order: SVU 25th Anniversary Celebration Red Carpet Jan. 16. "I think of him with such fondness. He has shored me up and I have so many memories of him. We talk about him all the time. It's like he's still here."
Dann Florek—who played Captain Donald Cragen on Law & Order and the first 15 seasons of SVU—meanwhile, detailed the bond he and Richard developed after spending well over a decade on screen together.
"Number one, I love the Belz," he began. "He was an irascible son-of-a-b. But a very, very talented man. And that has not escaped me down this line."
"I always thought he was Dracula," the L.A. Law alum continued. "He was never going to die. So, bless you, Belz. He was a part of so many good things but such a big part of SVU. I love that dude."
Richard died in February at 78 at his home in Bozouls, France. While his cause of death hasn't been shared publicly, his longtime friend Bill Scheft told The Hollywood Reporter last year that the actor had been facing "lots of health issues."
While Richard's longtime costars looked back at the early days of SVU, many of the actors who joined the show over the years, recalled how vital he was in helping them adjust.
"I'm just beyond grateful to know him," Kelli Giddish, who joined the cast in season 13, explained. "He was really instrumental in laying the footing for me when I got on the show. I deeply feel joy and pride by being part of this legacy."
Similarly, Raúl Esparza recalled Richard immediately putting him at ease, sharing, "The first day that I walked on set, Richard treated me like a star."
Noting that Richard had seen him on stage several times and gushed about his Broadway roles to the rest of the cast, the four-time Tony nominee added that the Homicide: Life on the Street alum lent him his trailer.
"I was just coming in as a guest star," Raúl continued, "And he's like, ‘I'm not going to be here for the next couple of weeks. Take my space.' He gave me a space, he's like, ‘You are welcome to everything I had.'"
And despite the serious nature of the series, Richard wasn't afraid to have some fun on-screen.
"This may be an easter egg," Kelli explained. "He always tried to do a 360 spin in every episode. So at some point, you would see him work it into the scene and you're like, ‘How did you do that?'"
Despite his passing, Richard's—and Munch's—legacy continues to play out on screen. As Ice-T pointed out "We said some things on the show, paying homage to Rich" following his death, and added that tributes will continue in the upcoming episodes.
Law & Order: SVU returns with season 25 Jan. 18 on NBC.
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