Crime and punishment: the ex-cop returns to TV in “Michael Hayes”
By John Rhodes
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
Photo Editor: Jennifer Crandall
It has been three years since David Caruso filmed his final scene on NYPD Blue, the one in which Detective John Kelly walks out of the 15th Precinct for the last time. When he finished, Caruso literally kept walking through the doors, away from the camera and off the set. There were no goodbyes, no farewell handshakes, no misty‑eyed good-luck hugs. By the time the camera stopped rolling, David Caruso was gone.
Caruso, unable to resist the million‑dollar movie deals that were dangled in front of him from the moment NYPD Blue hit the air, left for greener pastures. The perception was that his ego was raging and that he'd left his series cohorts in the lurch; for his sins, he was branded a traitor. When he talks about it now ‑ his sudden rise to stardom, his stunningly precipitous descent, the incredible firestorm of publicity that surrounded his departure, the critical scorn that was heaped upon Kiss of Death and Jade (the bombs that lured him away) ‑ Caruso sounds like a man describing a car wreck, a high‑speed joy ride that somehow spun out of control.
"This is going to sound very lame, but everything happened so fast that I never got a chance to get any footing," Caruso says wearily, leaning in close, smoking a cigar in the members‑only Grand Havana Room in Beverly Hills, Calif. And yes, he does speak in that hypnotic near monotone that NYPD Blue fans came to know so well.
"I was basically a character actor trying to build a respectable body of work, trying to hold my own, and it went from that to a thousand people standing on the street corner screaming because I was there," Caruso says. "It's a very surreal thing. And it was all right now. Between the show and Kiss of Death, I worked 56 weeks in a row with no day off. There was no time to step back. It was the front line, every minute of the way. Bang. And I didn't handle some of it right. That's not an excuse, OK? But at the same time, gee, it would have been beautiful to have had a chance to get some perspective on things, you know?"
Caruso, 41, with gray traces beginning to dilute his flame‑red hair, is not here to beg forgiveness or apologize. Too much time has passed for that, too many things have been said. But now that he's returning to television as a U.S. attorney in CBS' new crime saga Michael Hayes ‑his movie‑star moment come and gone ‑ he must talk about what went wrong and why he's ready for a second chance.
"I will never defend myself," Caruso says. "I will never sit here and go, 'No, I didn't misbehave; I didn't deserve any of what happened, 'cause I'm really a great guy.' Or that I was misunderstood. 'Cause I'm not."
"There's a part of David that's older and wiser now," says CBS Entertainment president Les Moonves, the man who gave Caruso that second chance in spite of the horror stories that surrounded him during his stormy tenure on NYPD Blue. "I think the pain‑in‑the‑ass reputation came from the fact that he is a man who is very exacting and very concerned about the work. Now I think he understands how the game is played and that this show is not an ensemble -it's called Michael Hayes. If he leaves, there's no show. I can't get Jimmy Smits."
Before Caruso could return to television, however, he had to get permission from NYPD Blue executive producer Steven Bochco, a condition of Caruso's leaving the show in 1994. "I'm not in the business of preventing people from making a living," says Bochco, whose parting with Caruso had been acrimonious. "In fact, I ran into David in a restaurant recently and we chatted for a moment. I wished him the best. He's a gifted guy."
Ever since Jade ‑ for which Caruso was reportedly paid $2 million ‑crashed and burned in 1995, he has been virtually invisible. After not working for more than a year, he finds that the parts are slowly coming his way again, although they're smaller and less prestigious than before. This fall he has the lead in a Showtime adaptation of bestselling author Elmore Leonard's Gold Coast and a secondary role in Body Count, which also stars Ving Rhames, Forest Whitaker and Linda Fiorentino.
"I think he's come to terms with himself," says Fiorentino, who notes a change in Caruso since they starred in Jade. "I think he's a genuinely happy human being, married to a wonderful woman [former flight attendant Margaret Buckley, 27). He feels loved, and I think he feels safe."
Not that Fiorentino had any trouble with Caruso the first time around. "It was obvious," she says, laughing, "that nobody on earth could be that bad and not be in jail."
When Caruso was growing up in Queens, N.Y., a skinny kid from a broken home, lonely and starved for attention, running with a dangerous crowd, jail was a distinct possibility. "I had some friends that died young and brutally," he says, remembering in a whisper nights when guns were held to his head. "But I had enough self‑regard not to go that way. I had a sense that I was gonna do something else with my life."
Caruso's first taste of performing, loosely speaking, came courtesy of the real‑life NYPD. "A detective was looking for a friend of mine," Caruso says, "and he goes, 'Wanna make 25 bucks in half an hour?' " The job, it turned out, was standing in police lineups. "It was 'cause I had the red hair."
The role that first got Caruso noticed, not surprisingly, was the part of an Irish gang leader on Hill Street Blues, in 1981. His quiet intensity and unusual looks helped him land an impressive string of small but memorable roles in An Officer and a Gentleman, First Blood and King of New York. His portrayal of a no‑nonsense cop in 1993's Mad Dog and Glory got him the part on NYPD Blue.
Then came a blast of attention unlike anything Caruso had ever dreamed of. He'd never thought of himself as a leading man, much less a sex symbol; and when the adulation came, he was sure it was a moment that wouldn't last. "Look, you're a guy trying to be noticed by the world, and it's taken 20 years, and then, in five minutes, it happens," he says, staring at the floor. "It's hard not to feel like, man, I gotta hit the ball now, otherwise somebody's gonna wake up and realize that this is some kind of ruse, you know?
"So, yeah, I grabbed it too tight."
It was because he was so obsessed with making the most of his opportunity, Caruso says, that he was sometimes perceived as arrogant and rude. "I just felt like there was no tomorrow, and I wanted to get it right," he says. "I didn't know how to pace myself. And there were days when I was not exhibiting the leadership skills that you need to have. But it was never about, 'I'm a star. F‑‑‑ you.'"
Caruso is calmer now, less desperate to prove himself. "One of the downsides was that the celebrity started to overshadow the performance," he says. "Now I may be able to get back to the performance, which is where the true value lies. If the audience makes some room in their life for me, in whatever capacity, it will be because of the work. I'm not ever gonna be real valuable as a celebrity. I don't have the chops for it.”
It helps, Caruso says, that he is married to a woman who has nothing to do with show business, who doesn't watch television and, when she met him, had no idea who he was. "Margaret is here because she wants to be here," says Caruso, who has been married twice before and was going through a palimony suit at the same time his movie career was flaming out. "She's the most amazing woman I've ever known. Margaret could live in the White House or a trailer park and not have it affect her at all."
Somewhere down the road, Caruso expects to be a father again (he has a 13‑year-old daughter from his second marriage, to actress Rachel Ticotin), but for now he simply seems glad to be working again. "All of this has been, at times, tough on my career," he says, "but very good for the quality of my life. Because once the worst possible thing happens to you, there's a lot of relief on the other side of that."
As he finishes the cigar, with a glass of mineral water on the side, Caruso is reminded that his chair on the set of NYPD Blue had “Mr. Difficult" written on it, a joke that ended up being not so funny. And what about his chair on the Michael Hayes set? What will that one say?
"Probably, 'Mr. Grateful," Caruso says, looking up, smiling. "Because these people have invested in me, and they didn't have to do that. They didn't have to go down this road. And that's not lost on me."