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.
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"There was no reality to that [early] desire because I was just another boy on the F train. But," Caruso pauses, "when I became the usher at the movie theater and began to be more influenced by the films, I think the seed of something kind of regerminated. And the thing about New York," Caruso grins, "is that anybody could make up a résumé and go around and try to get people, fool people, into hiring you."
That Caruso easily admits to the emphasis he placed on the "make up" and "fool" part of his résumé is simply evidence of the spine that Caruso would develop in earnest when he decided to go after an acting career.
"The catch-22 with this town is that you have to have something on film for them to even consider looking at you, but how do you get something on film to show unless…? So, OK, I had a résumé that wasn't entirely accurate, but it wasn't about what I had done, it was about what I was capable of. And agents in New York are, of course, the gateway to opportunities, so it was all about the seduction of those agents and the pursuit of those agents. I was a fairly aggressive young man," Caruso says, grinning again, "and I was one of those guys out there in February with my 8 by 10, pushing it under their door."
It became, says Caruso, a game. "I'd push it under, they'd push it back. I'd push it under, they'd push it back. This would go on until finally the guy would open the door and furiously say, 'Look, you're not right for me. If you don't leave, I'm going to call security.' And I," Caruso says, laughing, "would put my foot in the door and say, 'Let me make you a deal.' Now, this is an actual situation I'm telling you about! I'd say, 'Here's the deal. If you send me out once and I don't get the job, I will never bother you, never darken your doorway again.'"
One agent, unable to slam his door shut with Caruso's foot wedged in the jamb, was intrigued enough to ask the then 19-year-old to do an impromptu monologue. Sufficiently impressed, the agent sent the teenager out to audition for an A&W commercial and Caruso snagged the job. Suddenly he had his first legitimate acting credit.
A root beer commercial does not an instant star make, but it was the turning point for Caruso. With that lone credit to his name, along with an actual agent, he was able to snag a few additional acting jobs, and then, with $1,000 in his pocket, he made his way to Hollywood.
By the early 1980s Caruso was getting regular roles on television shows such as "CHiPs," "T. J. Hooker," "For Love and Honor" and, ultimately, Steven Bochco's "Hill Street Blues." Caruso, who'd married actress Cheri Maugans not long after arriving in Los Angeles, divorced in 1984 and quickly got married again, to another actress, Rachel Ticotin. Caruso and Ticotin had a daughter, Greta, before divorcing three years later.
Caruso's career continued on a steady pace, a mix of television shows such as "Crime Story" and small parts in big-screen features such as King of New York, Hudson Hawk and Mad Dog and Glory before landing the role of Detective John Kelly in "NYPD Blue."
For the first time in his career, Caruso had real fame—the kind of fame that had fans flooding the network with letters and people on the street begging for autographs—and if Caruso's decision to leave the show backfired on him, Caruso couldn't, he said at the time, do much about it. "I went from a guy, kind of a working actor, a supporting player, to magazine covers and being offered the studio picture really quickly. Nobody was comfortable with it. I wasn't really comfortable with it," Caruso said in an interview years after leaving. "I was a guy who abandoned a TV show. I didn't care about people. They didn't want to see good things happen to me."
But, not unlike a Rocky-style Hollywood movie script that has a battered fighter pushing his way back up to champ status, good things did happen to Caruso during the period when, as he put it, "I went from starring in a Paramount movie to unemployment for two years. Literally, I couldn't get a job for almost two years."
Caruso had remarried in 1996—he and Margaret Buckley divorced nine years later—and, ultimately, a couple of feature movie roles came his way, as well as the lead role in the short-lived television series "Michael Hayes." In the middle of it all, Caruso says, he got offered a role that, in hindsight, helped predict the happiness and success that was to come his way many years later. That role was in a TV movie called Gold Coast.
A Showtime cable production directed by Peter Weller, a good friend of Caruso's, the movie was set in Miami Beach, and Caruso's female costar was Marg Helgenberger, now the female lead of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."
When Gold Coast was being shot, in 1997, neither Caruso nor Helgenberger could possibly have had an inkling of their future successes on "CSI," but everyone on the set could see a definite sizzle between the two red-headed actors.
"There's a chemistry between [us]," Caruso explains, "but what really makes this all interesting is that I had never been to Florida before we began filming [Gold Coast] and we flew into Jacksonville and kind of made our way down the coast of Florida and ended up in Miami. So the interesting thing is that I discovered Miami with Marg," Caruso says, "and while we were there we ran into Jerry Bruckheimer one night when we were out to dinner.
"Now, we all knew Jerry from other projects, but what you have to remember," Caruso explains excitedly, "is that this was 1997, 1998 and 'CSI' didn't exist yet, not for Marg and certainly not for me. When I look back it was a very interesting foreshadowing for a lot of what was to happen to me, including the whole Miami chapter of my life. I moved to Miami way before I ever got the job, and when I think back on that night at dinner there was a lot of foreshadowing."
At the very least, the universe was sending Caruso some very strong signals. Margaret Buckley, Caruso's wife, had gone down to Miami with him during the shoot and the two fell in love with the city, so much so that they bought a luxury condo there with the intention of living in Florida part-time. The concept worked for both of them and, prior to their divorce, they opened Steam, an upscale clothing boutique in South Beach that Caruso still owns with partners.
"Miami is," Caruso muses, "a magical place…the American Riviera. I say that it's a four-hour plane ride to Europe because it's very European, and I think the influences there are very good to experience [because] priorities there are different. It's less about competition and material resources and money and more about quality of life. I think it's the city in America."
Caruso also credits the magic of Miami with helping propel "CSI: Miami" to the worldwide success it's had. "I think that when we get down there [to shoot], we connect with our soul as a show. It's very authentic and it's good for 'CSI: Miami' to be shooting in Miami, on the streets, in the Everglades sometimes, on some airboats."
Each week the show opens with aerial views of the Miami skyline and pan shots of Miami's beaches that are, while heart-stoppingly beautiful, strictly Hollywood creations; the vast majority of the show is actually shot on a film stage in the California suburb of Manhattan Beach.
Still, Caruso enthuses, on those rare occasions that they get to shoot in Miami, there's a natural response and energy from the cast, the crew and the film that immediately comes across. "When we get to shoot footage down there, you can see the difference right away. From a physical standpoint, the light and the environment simply explode onto the negative [when shooting] in Miami. The California footage is great, but there is a very unique electricity about south Florida when it's on the negative."
As someone who now lives on both coasts, Caruso points out another big difference that he says becomes apparent when they shoot in Miami. "Los Angeles is a big city. A smaller city like Miami means that you have relationships that are very real and day to day, and you're seeing the [same people] all the time. It's much harder, for instance, in Los Angeles where you can do a movie or work on a show with someone and they might be living [in the neighborhood] where I live but I might not see them for 10 years even though they're three blocks away! In Miami, you're going to see them all the time."
Another reason Caruso enjoys his time in Miami is being able to serve as a board member of the nonprofit organization Best Buddies. Based in Miami and founded by Anthony Kennedy Shriver, the international organization helps connect those with intellectual challenges to a "best buddy" at school, at work and in the community.
Caruso's support of the organization and his relationship with his own best buddy, George Morilla, has always been important to the nonprofit, says Shriver, but it sends a special message now that Caruso is so highly visible around the globe. "David's got an impossible schedule, a brand new baby and a top-10 show," says Shriver, "but he's also managed to stay actively involved in his community. I think there are a lot of people who think, 'Oh, I don't have enough time to get involved' or 'The little bit of time I have won't make a difference' and then they see David making time and they start to think, 'Hey, if he can do it, I guess I can do it.'"
The commitment Caruso has made to Miami—on-screen and off—is obvious. He happily spends 10 minutes just mentioning some of his favorite things about South Beach—the best places for a drink, best places for Italian food, best art galleries to visit—and at no time does a smile or a sense of excitement leave his voice. Caruso may reside most of the year in L.A., but there's no doubt that he considers Miami his home.
"You asked me where I exhale?" responds Caruso to a question. "Miami. I exhale in Miami."
Plenty of what he exhales is cigar smoke. Caruso is a cigar lover, and the deck of his condo in Miami has seen a fair amount of cigar smoking over the last few years. "A cigar is a ritual for me, and also a unique way to take a brief vacation from the world…a great way to literally stop the world, have a respite from the things that you need to face.
"I once heard David Letterman say, when talking about cigars to Danny DeVito, I think, 'You get a good one of those and it can change your whole day.' And I have to say there are times where I may have been experiencing some stress or a particularly challenging day and I've said, 'You know what? I'm going to smoke a cigar right now.' "And," he laughs, "the day really does change."
Caruso, who is a member and regular visitor of the Grand Havana Room, both in Beverly Hills and New York, pauses when asked if he's got a favorite smoke or two. "Wow…well, there's a Cuban cigar called a Trinidad which is a fantastic cigar, and I'm also a fan of the Quai d'Orsay, another Cuban cigar. Then there's the Romeo y Julieta Churchill and the Punch Punch and…"
As he rattles off the names of five or six other cigars, it's obvious that he feels strongly not just about what cigar he likes, but what cigar he wants for a particular moment in his life.
"If you're in Paris," muses Caruso, "and it is lunchtime, you want a Montecristo No. 4 because all the Parisian businessmen are sitting and smoking No. 4s! It's a good, short, afternoon smoke. If you are in Italy, in Positano, for instance, there might be an occasion to have a morning cigar, which is also great, but it calls for a different cigar."
Caruso credits his longtime friend, the actor-director Peter Weller, with introducing him to the enjoyment of a cigar. Another close friend of Caruso's who enjoys a good cigar is Rex Linn, who plays Detective Frank Tripp on "CSI: Miami." "So I'm covered," he says, "when I'm in L.A."
Caruso mentions the Lincoln Road area as a great place to shop for cigars in Miami ("Some of the cigar stores have live salsa music in them…very authentic"), but says that when he's not at home, relaxed and sitting on his own deck, he still prefers a club atmosphere when he goes out.
"There is a kind of ritual to going to the Grand Havana Room and meeting another pal who appreciates a good cigar on a Friday afternoon. It's a great reward for me to go there, have lunch and smoke a cigar…it's a male experience in Los Angeles."
Caruso stops for a moment, then adds, "It's not that it's separate from the female experience, because women do go there and enjoy themselves. Sometimes Liza [girlfriend Liza Marquez] comes to the Grand Havana Room with me and if the night is right, she'll take a puff off a cigar and that's pretty cool, pretty sexy."
When Caruso talks about the women in his life—his grandmother and mother, his daughter, his assistant and his girlfriend—there is a distinct change in his voice and demeanor when he describes them, their accomplishments or their roles in his life. Caruso has, it seems, surrounded himself with very strong, very intelligent women.