Belli, admitted to the California Bar in 1933, began his career as the counsel for the Catholic priest of San Quentin Prison. Belli took up the challenging task of defending men already condemned to die. Since that first case, Belli continued to make an impact in both criminal and civil cases.
High profile clients of Melvin Belli's law firm have included Mae West, Errol Flynn, Tony Curtis, Lenny Bruce, Zsa Zsa Gabor, The Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, Muhammad Ali, Alex Haley, Nick Nolte, Mickey Cohen and the criminal defense of Jack Ruby, on trial for the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of President John F. Kennedy. Melvin Belli won a reversal on Jack Ruby's death penalty conviction from the Texas Appellate Court as well as a new trial outside of Dallas, but Ruby died of brain cancer soon afterwards, and before a second trial. Mr. Belli's book, "Dallas Justice", chronicles his perspective of the Jack Ruby case.
Other high-profile clients and cases followed: the so-called "Angel of Death," the Nevada nurse accused of murdering patients; former television evangelist, Jim Bakker and his wife, Tammy Faye; Jerry and Helen Barr, the parents of television star, Roseanne Barr Arnold; the shooting of Korean Air Line Flight 0007 by a Soviet jet fighter; torture and beating cases against the late Philippine President, Ferdinand Marcos; MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas; Union Carbide chemical disaster in Bhopal, India; Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska; defective silicone gel breast implants by Dow Corning and other implant manufacturers; product liability suits against the makers of the dietary supplement L-Tryptophan; and sexual assault and harassment lawsuits against the Tailhook Association, Las Vegas Hilton and the U.S. Navy.
Mr. Belli's association with the rich and famous and flair for courtroom theatrics earned him his own niche in the entertainment industry. He appeared in several feature films, including "Gimme Shelter" with The Rolling Stones and "Wild in the Streets. In 1968 he appeared as the Evil Gorgon on an episode of "Star Trek" with his son, Caesar. Other television shows in which he appeared include "Murder She Wrote" and "Hunter." He was featured in several commercials and advertisements, and was a guest on countless television and radio talk shows throughout the country.