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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

Depending on the language, the culture and the particular time in history, the story of a great winged bird being consumed by fire and then rising from the ashes—sometimes larger, grander and more glorious than before—may differ in name, but the lesson or moral is the same: out of death comes rebirth; out of ashes and rubble, a grand rebuilding. The early Egyptians called this creature Bennu. In Russian folklore it's Zhar-Ptitsa, the firebird. And the early Greeks called the creature by its more familiar name, the phoenix. Today, in Hollywood, it's called David Caruso.

Numbers matter in Hollywood but even Tinseltown's most talented screenwriters would have a hard time coming up with a more compelling "phoenix from the ashes" story than that of actor David Caruso. His staggering success on "CSI Miami" eclipses nearly any rebirth-and-success script that Hollywood could possibly produce.

Each week, an estimated 50 million viewers around the world tune in to catch Caruso—as dedicated crime scene investigator Lieutenant Horatio Caine—and the rest of the "CSI: Miami" cast fight terrorists, snatch potential tsunami victims out of harm's way and catch (or kill) drug lords, murderers and kidnappers through their work on the street and in the forensics lab. That the show is so spectacularly successful around the world should come as no surprise; "CSI: Miami" is, after all, the 2002 spin-off of the then-two-year-old, No. 1 drama series on television, "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."

A spin-off of any show, even one with the incredible ratings of a "Friends" or "Seinfeld," could—and often does—bomb right off the bat with the fickle American audience. But with the original Las Vegas—based "CSI" introducing its Miami-based little brother and cast—especially David Caruso as the male lead—Act 2 in the "CSI" series was orchestrated beautifully, right from the opening credits.

Now in its fifth season and having, in turn, helped spin off yet a third act in the CBS—Jerry Bruckheimer franchise by introducing the cast and story line behind "CSI: New York," the show's success makes perfect sense. But the fact that Caruso, as the red-haired, fair-skinned and infinitely grim Horatio Caine, has become an international star still comes as a bit of a surprise to the 50-year-old actor. A pleasant surprise.

"On a return trip to Los Angeles from Cannes this spring, I was in Heathrow and there were people from all over the world [recognizing] me and talking to me, and suddenly there was this gaggle of about 20 people from Taiwan that came running over. The only word they knew in English," says Caruso, a little sheepishly, "was 'Horatio.'"

Caruso grins and shakes his head as he tells the story. "It wasn't, you know, as if it was the Rolling Stones walking [by] at Heathrow. I mean, it's not like seeing and running up to Mick Jagger…now, he's bigger than life!"

Well, in some respects, so is David Caruso's Horatio Caine. "CSI: Miami" now airs in some 200 countries and is estimated by industry tracking guides to be the most-watched television show on the planet. That 12 years ago David Caruso was having trouble landing acting roles—any role, much less one as the lead in a series with the lineage and capacity for success that "CSI: Miami" offered—isn't lost on him.

For one thing, as Caruso is quick to point out, he doesn't have what he calls "leading man looks. In acting, especially in motion pictures, in my opinion, you have to have a level of physical beauty that is on the superlative level. If you look at the current crop of stars out there, they have a very superior physical presence on camera. Let's face it, you just can't look away from Brad Pitt," Caruso laughs. "Pitt has tremendous physical beauty and presence, much like Paul Newman did. Now, if they're interested in me, they're interested in, you know, a 'street version' because I just don't look like a leading man."

David Caruso is, in fact, an attractive man and one of those rare creatures in Hollywood who is actually more attractive in person than on the screen; he has a softer, more animated face that not only lights up when he smiles and laughs, but also moves when his expression changes, a rarity in Botox-friendly Southern California.

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."

Caruso insists that he loved the idea of "NYPD Blue" from the moment he was approached to play Detective Kelly, calling the show "one of the greatest [television] hours ever. 'NYPD Blue' had a feature [film] sensibility and a feature quality to it, and when I first looked at a brilliant script by David Milch for the show, it read like a 1930s Jimmy Cagney picture! It was brilliant and it read, it felt, like a feature movie."

Unfortunately for Caruso, although it was a hugely successful role for him, it wasn't the feature movie that he'd always dreamed about. When the offer came for the lead role in Kiss of Death, he says he made a knee-jerk decision.

"I think," Caruso says slowly, "that my inexperience in the area of responsibility and my inexperience with the suddenness of opportunity caught up to me…the sudden opportunity to be on the big screen. It was something that I'd always fantasized about but I guess never taken that seriously because I [hadn't] gotten that signal from Hollywood. Remember, I was 'television,' not 'feature.'"

Suddenly, Caruso says, his popularity and immense exposure on "NYPD Blue" gave him that big-screen opportunity and, he admits, some arrogance. "I was overwhelmed with the suddenness of it…and I didn't have the wherewithal and the experience to make good decisions at the time. I was making decisions from a very green perspective and it got away from me in a way that was painful to a lot of other people. The easy, cheap answer is that if I had the opportunity to redo it I wouldn't have left 'NYPD Blue' because that was my world, my opportunity and, you know, at the end of the day in show business, you just don't," Caruso chuckles, "leave a hit show."

If, as Caruso puts it, the entertainment industry takes it upon itself to cast talent in the style and roles it deems fit, it also reprimands those who step outside of the slot in which they've been assigned. With the rare exception of names such as Clooney, Depp, Travolta and Aniston, very few actors have successfully made the move from television to features, and Caruso, who had ruffled some feathers on his journey, suddenly became Hollywood's very public poster boy for bad decisions and bad behavior.

Late-night comedians and talk show hosts routinely used phrases such as "pulling a Caruso" when referring to someone's career backslide; film critics would use Caruso's career decisions as a measuring stick when looking to diss another television actor's foray into feature films, and even Comedy Central's animated show "South Park" got in a dig when one of the main characters urged his brother to jump from a dangerous height with the words, "Show me your imitation of David Caruso's career!"

Ouch. Being openly dissed in an industry so ready to eat its own might make a lesser man turn, tuck tail and run. What no one counted on was Caruso showing some stamina. And some spine.

Born in Forest Hills, New York, David Caruso was simply born stubborn, an amalgam of an Italian father, an Irish mother and a family that split apart just two years after David's birth. To support David and his older sister, David's mother, Joan, moved with her young family into her parents' home and went back to school to become a librarian.

Caruso describes his early years growing up in Queens as merely average. He was, by his own admission, a mediocre student who didn't get excited about much of anything unless it involved the movies. In fact, there was one particular movie that, he says, goes a long way toward defining the sheer wonder he felt as a child, at spending two hours in a darkened theater.

"It was The Godfather," Caruso says, "and my closest friend, Lou Mathis, and I went to see it on a Friday night. We took the Q60 bus down Queens Boulevard to the Elmwood Theatre to see The Godfather. We were 13 years old and we came back changed. Changed! We stood under the lamppost on Puritan Avenue and I said, 'Lou, I'm going to do that for a living.'"

Caruso shakes his head and smiles at the memory. It was an impractical aim for the boy that he was, coming from a neighborhood where the straight-A students would choose law or medicine, and those with study habits like Caruso's would opt for civil service jobs.

"I was 13 years old and it was an absolutely ludicrous statement to make," says Caruso. "I was not as academically inclined as some people and I don't think I had the discipline at the time. I'm more of a left-brain person. The consumption of repetitive material is something that I'm, uh, not designed for."

That perceived deficit didn't, Caruso admits, keep him from repetitively consuming The Godfather—and the first sequel—many times over. "Which character did I identify with? God, every one of them was so electric that I think that varied. Some days you were Sonny, some days you were Michael and some days," Caruso grins, "you were Fredo."

In spite of his career declaration at 13, Caruso simply waded his way through the rest of school and, although he played a little basketball when he attended Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens, he didn't have a specific game plan for his life or career until, once again, he found himself in a darkened theater, this time, as a movie usher.

While Caruso never doubted his absolute certainty about acting as a career choice, he knew that, for a boy from a middle-class neighborhood in Queens, the chances of achieving that dream were pretty slim.


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