IN 1982, RICHARD BELZER, STILL STRUGGLING as a comic after 10 years of stand-up, was broke and in need of a vacation. Unlike his contemporaries Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor, who had by then made the multimillion-dollar leap into movies, Belzer remained a working-class comedian. "I wanted to take my family to Hawaii, so I did this cable game show once," he says. "Three contestants come out, and the celebrity panel lakes a good look at them. Then female contestants had to slick their naked breasts through a cutout or men their bare buttocks, and the panel guessed which person it was. At the end, during the credits, the camera zooms in on me, and I mouth the words, 'I did it for the money.' It's the only time I sold out in my life."

These days Belzer, 48, is selling himself as a serious actor on Homicide: Life on the Street, NBC's acclaimed new cop series—and people are buying it. Belzer (who also has a small role in the Bill Murray-Robert De Niro movie Mad Dog and Glory) plays Baltimore police detective John Munch, who shoots off his mouth more than his service revolver. Two decades and thousands of club dates since he first appeared on The Groove Tube—a racy, underground '70s video show that many consider the granddaddy of most contemporary television satire—he has finally made it into the mainstream. "I've been cynical and angry about this business, but I never gave up," says Belzer, who has had his share of misfires in television. In 1985, on Belzer's cable show Hot Properties, for example, wrestler Hulk Hogan put him in a hold that cut off the blood supply to his brain, then let him drop to the floor. (Belzer sued; he and Hogan settled out of court.)

Away from the tube, Belzer has had comedy-club cull status since the '70s, when he was the best and brightest regular at New York City's Catch a Rising Star. "Being a cull figure," he says, "is a nice way of saying people loved me, but it didn't pay the rent." The people, in those days, included De Niro, David Bowie, Joe Pesci, John Belushi, Gilda Radner and bandleader Paul Shaffer. "When I first came to New York in 1974," says Shaffer, "Gilda took me to Catch, and Richard was absolutely hysterical. His friends would go to the basement, where the performers hung out, and with pipes dripping on you, Richard would make you laugh. That was the hippest place to be at that time."

Belzer's biting humor wasn't just an act. He and his elder brother, Len, lived a miserable childhood in Bridgeport, Conn. "Our mother didn't know how to love her sons appropriately," says Len, who hosts, produces and writes the syndicated radio show The Comedy Hour. "She always had some rationale for hitting us." Adds Richard: "My kitchen was the toughest room I ever worked. I had to make my mom laugh or I'd get my ass kicked." To this day he's bitter toward his mother, Frances, who died in 1964. "I visited her grave nine years ago," he says, "and I said, 'I forgive you,' but it had no meaning because I didn't forgive her."

On the other hand, he dearly loved his more nurturing parent, Charles, a salesman who committed suicide in 1968. He had tried killing himself the year before but was saved by Richard, who walked into his father's office and found him slumped over his desk, overdosed on booze and pills. "I was 22 when I saw him dead," says Belzer. "But not until three years later, in psychoanalysis, did all the sadness and terror come out."

As a newspaper reporter for The Bridgeport Post in the late '60s, Belzer had dreams of becoming a serious writer. Instead, he says, "I got into dealing drugs and carrying guns. I never got arrested, but there were some close calls. A friend of mine got shot." In 1971, a year before the end of his six-year marriage to Gail Susan Ross, Belzer saw an ad in New York City's Village Voice for Groove Tube auditions. He went to New York with the bits he had done hundreds of times for his friends and his brother: Bob Dylan's bar mitzvah, Brando, Jerry Lewis. Groove Tube aired in an off-Broadway theater and was an underground hit, which led to Belzer's first gig at Catch a Rising Star.

In 1975 his friend Lorne Michaels, producer of Saturday Night Live, offered Belzer a spot as warm-up comic for the SNL audience. Belzer says Michaels also promised him a spot in the cast but later reneged. Whether Michaels withdrew an offer or whether the two men had a miscommunication is unclear. Belzer, however, is convinced he washed to. "John [Belushi], Bill Murray and Gilda got on the show and became big stars and millionaires," says Belzer, jabbing the air with his index finger. "Lorne betrayed me and lied to me—which he denies—but I give you my word he said, 'I'll work you into the show.' " (Michaels will not comment.)

In 1976. Belzer worked himself into a second marriage with Dalia Danoch, a boutique manager, but it ended in divorce less than two years later. Throughout this time. Belzer says, he indulged in "just about ever) drug in the world—things people have never even heard of, and I'm not kidding." He snorted heroin and cocaine and dropped Quaaludes. "Doing 'ludes onstage is something I'm very ashamed of," says Belzer. "In my act I used to jump up on the piano and do Mick Jagger, but on Quaaludes I was like a crab crawling up that piano."

One of Belzer's big drug buddies was Belushi. who visited Belzer at his L.A. apartment the night before he died of a drug overdose in March 1982. Richard had already lost one friend by then, Freddie Prinze, who was addled by drugs when he committed suicide in 1977. Belushi's death was an even harder hit. "The thing that really blew my mind," says Belzer, "is that he let someone stick a needle in him. I remember right before he married Judy he said, 'The only thing that bothers me is having a blood test.' He must have been really sad to allow somebody to stick a needle in him."

Belzer, meanwhile, was busy sticking it to politicians and patrons alike onstage. In 1981, with First Daughter Patti Davis in the audience, he gave his scabrous view of the prescriptions of Reaganomics. "Instead of getting pregnant, have oral sex," he said. "Food stamps? Lick this, babe."

In 1985, after four years of cohabitation, Belzer married his third wife, Harlee McBride, a former Playboy model and actress best known for starring in Young Lady Chatterley. He and McBride met on a blind date in 1981 but didn't get to the altar until 1985, after Belzer had survived a bout with testicular cancer. "Cancer is a cosmic slap in the face," says Belzer, whose brush with death also inspired him to conquer his drug habit. "You either get discouraged or ennobled by it." Adds Harlee, a divorced mother who brought two teenage daughters to the marriage: "Richard softened me a lot. When I met him, I was cynical about men and life, but he's somebody I've grown to trust and feel comfortable with. Marriage relaxed him too."

"I learned so much from my wife about children," Belzer says. "Early on, when the girls did something wrong, my impulse was to lash out because my mother would beat the s—t out of me with straps. My anger at the kids never came out, but I could feel it. Harlee taught me that loving a child is unconditional, no matter how bad they are." Says Belzer's younger stepdaughter, Bree, now 20: "In junior high, he always seemed a lot more hip than everyone else's parents. Other fathers were bald or insurance salesmen, and here's Richard in black with the shades and a full head of hair going, 'Yeah, sure, babe.' "

It was that East Coast cool with a pinch of dark humor that led Homicide's creator, director Barry Levin-son, to cast Belzer as the stinging detective. "I heard him on the Howard Stern show, and he wasn't just telling jokes. He was smart, and he had an attitude," says Levinson. "I wondered if I could take that and put it into the Munch character. A lot of comics who go into acting kind of do it winking at the camera. But Richard's in there doing it as an actor."

Belzer's still doing it as a stand-up comic too, but on his own terms. "What makes this really sweet is that I'm getting known for acting, something that no one knew I could do," he says. "I tell you, I won't miss making drunks laugh at 2 in the morning."