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TV's Hottest Cop

As David Caruso savors the global success of "CSI: Miami," the former star of "NYPD Blue" won't forget the lessons he's learned, or the cigars he loves.
Betsy Model
From the Print Edition:
David Caruso, Jan/Feb 2007

(continued from page 1)

Whether it's Caruso's looks by themselves or his ability to portray a strong, responsible, "nobody-knows-the-trouble-I've-seen" street-weary cop, the actor has an undeniable "it" factor when it comes to popularity with both male and female viewers; for proof, one need look no further than the success he had on the gritty crime drama "NYPD Blue."

Although Caruso had some modest success in the '80s with small roles in movies such as Thief of Hearts, An Officer and a Gentleman and First Blood, it was his skill at playing Detective John Kelly on "NYPD Blue" that first made David Caruso a household name. Well, that and an episode involving his naked butt, which helped set a new standard for nudity on prime-time television.

When it debuted in 1993, "NYPD Blue" had the same kind of impressive pedigree as "CSI: Miami." Created and executive-produced by Steven Bochco, the same man behind the back-to-back hit dramas "L.A. Law" and "Hill Street Blues," "NYPD Blue" featured an ensemble cast of characters whose strengths and weaknesses, foibles and faux pas were recognizable to the average viewer. Even in its first season the show was a runaway hit, and much praise was heaped on the cast, which included Gordon Clapp, a relatively unknown Dennis Franz and, of course, Caruso.

If there were industry rumors that egos were expanding—and clashing—on the "NYPD Blue" set, these tales were muted compared to the hype surrounding the show itself. Caruso was terrific as Kelly and he played the role to the hilt…for just 26 episodes. In 1994, only four episodes into the second season of the top-rated show, Caruso decided to play a little career poker. With a movie offer in hand, he asked for an extraordinary salary increase. The network called his bluff and Caruso walked, telling the press that "'NYPD Blue' will not be successful when I leave."

The movie that Caruso left to make was Kiss of Death, a medium-budget suspense feature that had Caruso playing a good-hearted ex-con opposite Samuel L. Jackson and Nicolas Cage. Perhaps the film's title should have served as an omen to Caruso; released in late 1994 and grossing less than $15 million in the United States, the film didn't live up to anyone's expectations, especially Caruso's. And his next big-screen venture did even worse. In spite of returning Caruso to a role that had him on the right side of the law, the erotic thriller Jade cost nearly $50 million to make and took in less than $10 million in its U.S. release. A year after Caruso had earned an Emmy nomination and a Golden Globe award, for Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series—Drama, for "NYPD Blue," he found himself nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst New Movie Actor.

With those kinds of box-office numbers and generally scathing reviews of his performances, 1995 was a bittersweet year for the actor, then 38. It was also the beginning of a very quiet decade in David Caruso's career and no one, it seems, takes on the burden of responsibility for that debacle more than David Caruso.

"I wasn't ready for the success," he says, quietly. "Not then."

When reminiscing about his early career and the people he worked and spent time with, Caruso is unflinching both in his admission of "letting others down" in his abrupt departure from "NYPD Blue" and his acknowledgement of the wide berth that Hollywood gave him in the years to follow.

"My experience over the past 30 years [acting] is that Hollywood casts itself and Hollywood will let you know where you belong," Caruso explains, haltingly. "Different people serve different functions. Hollywood will say, you know [pointing as if to an actor lineup], 'features, features, television, television, features, television, theater, features, television.' And," he pauses, "they cast it themselves because there are people they have needs for. They need to fill these slots and these functions, and some people are considered big-screen people and some are television people."

Caruso had always dreamt of being on the big screen, but, he says, Hollywood told him "television." Caruso had done some TV roles prior to "NYPD Blue" and, in fact, had come to interest Steven Bochco as a possibility for the role of John Kelly because of the recurring role he played on Bochco's earlier police-themed hit, "Hill Street Blues."

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