David Caruso: The Red Menace
David Caruso was one of the great cautionary tales of television. If you leave a hit show too soon, you might end up like Caruso. Three years after leaving NYPD Blue, Caruso’s hoped-for movie career was washed up before it ever really started. When the actor was interviewed for the October 1997 issue of Movieline magazine, his reportedly out-of-control ego had been popped like a bubble. At the time, Caruso was hoping that a new TV show would help him get a foothold in show business. It didn’t, but five years later he would bounce back with CSI: Miami.
Word on the street is that David Caruso is a changed man. No shit, Sherlock. How could anyone who plummeted to earth so shortly after takeoff have survived as anything other than a changed man? It was only three short years ago that the nervy, searching, something-going-on-in-the-eyes star of NYPD Blue blew off prime-time TV and announced to the world that he would now be a movie star. As unlikely looking a heartthrob as he was, Caruso had gotten plenty of encouragement for his hubris.
Moviemakers had put him on speed dial, his name was mentioned for hot projects such as Smoke and Devil in a Blue Dress, and even Broadway was looking to bankroll him (in On the Waterfront, the very role that solidified young Brando as a movie contender). In truth, Caruso hardly needed encouragement. His full-blown self-esteem had led him to throw tantrums on the set of his show, to squabble openly with costar Dennis Franz, and to ask for a princely $100,000 per episode. He seemed to be working overtime at pissing off the press and supplying them with fuel and matches to burn him–including dumping his live-in girlfriend of six years for a cuter, younger, more attractive partner. When he snagged a lead role in Kiss of Death, just the sort of De Niro-esque noir project he’d always imagined himself in, he acted like he had already taken home the Oscar and he never so much as glanced back at the small screen that made him. Then Kiss of Death tanked. The next one, Jade, tanked, too. The whole world seemed to do a collective, sneering, nah, nah, na nah nah. Who wouldn’t be changed after all that ecstasy and agony?
After two years of laying low, Caruso appears to be staging a comeback. On TV. He’s producing and starring in a new CBS series, Michael Hayes, in which he plays a tough, crusading New York federal prosecutor, He’s also busy in film projects, although they’re much smaller than his earlier films. There’s Cold Around the Heart, a thriller in which he stars as an escaped convict on the run opposite Kelly Lynch, and Body Count, in which he dares to reunite with his Jade cohort Linda Fiorentino. You may have just seen him in Gold Coast opposite Marg Helgenberger in an Elmore Leonard adaptation on Showtime. Who can say whether Caruso will pull off his Lazarus act? But he’s gotten himself back to work, and there’s always been something about him that ms one not to count him out just yet.
When I connect with Caruso in one of L.A.’s park-and-puff-a-stogie lounges to down some mineral water–neither of us smokes; we’re here for the quiet–it strikes me right off that this is a later-model Caruso: seasoned, slightly frayed around the emotional edges. The actor is nicely dressed down in a black linen shirt, jeans, and walking shoes with no socks, and it works well with his steely blue eyes, the grin that switches on and off like a neon sign, and his weedy, strawberry blond hair.
Since Caruso himself has never been the type of person to pussyfoot around, I get straight to business: “Just how big an asshole were you?” I ask him. He nods at the question, figuring it was coming, and answers, “OK, cool. An asshole? Hmm. Yeah, I think so. I think so. There were times on the show when I lost my cool. I’d been around the business for a long time. I’d worked very hard to amass whatever credibility I had. When I got NYPD Blue I knew we were doing something special. I wanted people to watch and be excited by it, and they did and they were. But I squeezed it too hard.When you start your day at 6:30 a.m., and you’re reaching for intense quality and you’re doing important scenes at 9:00 p.m.–this is not a good excuse for what I did, but there’s a level of exhaustion that’s hard for people to understand.”
Wait a second here. Am I hearing him blame his toxic temper on sleep deprivation? “I’m saying there were times when I was exhausted and I wasn’t getting the take and was furious with myself, and [losing my temper] would help me get back to the performance. I’d been on feature films where people did things all the time to get themselves up for a scene. Doing TV was virgin territory for me. I didn’t understand my responsibility as the leader on the show. It was scary for people. They were traumatized. I was being naive…”
Caruso breaks off, apparently trancing out on some memory, then comes back to earth, sighs and reflects, “When people have an expectation of you, and you let them down or you show yourself to be human, to be breakable, it can lead you to a place of, ‘He’s an asshole.’ If I’m guilty of anything, it’s probably that it all meant too much to me. I didn’t know how to temper that.”
In fact, Caruso would have me understand, he really wasn’t all that bad. “I really wish that I had misbehaved,” he says, “I wish it was all a little more substantial, that I had taken it even further, because then maybe I would have had a little fun with it.” Meaning, if the damage was already done, why didn’t he run with it? “Maybe I should clarify that. If we were to go back and actually look at the two or three [bad] incidents that took place, you would go, That’s it?'”
We both take a sip of water. Suddenly, Caruso points my attention out the window. “Man, you don’t want to miss this,” he says, staring with the wolfish grin of a born player as a pair of impossibly long stems precede the rest of a flashy show pony on the way out of an exotic car. As Caruso sits there grinning at the girl, I can’t help but think of Jimmy Smits, who all the girls are now grinning at. When Caruso left NYPD Blue and Smits stepped in, the ratings actually went up. It’s gotta sting–doesn’t it? Caruso lets loose a weary sigh and says, “I have to say, Jimmy Smits’s character is certainly equal, if not more interesting, and he has the right sensibility with Dennis Franz.
“It’s easy to look back in hindsight,” Caruso continues, shifting the subject, “because now, what’s the big deal? Everybody’s crossing over from TV to movies. Schedules are worked to accommodate doing features. I wanted to stay with the show and do movies when they were offered to me.” But, Caruso obviously believes, it took his pioneering to make the transit back and forth from big and small screen possible. “George Clooney has openly admitted that what I did made it easier for him,” Caruso continues. “Those people look at me as an example of, ‘Well, I don’t need to draw that kind of fire by leaving my television show.’ Now it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. I was the first one through the gate like an X-l rocket, and the first couple of those don’t necessarily work, but then they get the bugs out and it becomes the stealth fighter. I’m kind of the X-l rocket, and George is the stealth fighter.”
Once the X-l had rocketed out of television, the problems were hardly over. Kiss of Death was a Richard Price-scripted action noir that understandably looked good going in, but proved the beginning of new difficulties. “I chose to do it because I wanted to work with great people–Sam Jackson, Helen Hunt, Stanley Tucci, Michael Rapaport and Nic Cage, who went on to win the Oscar [for Leaving Las Vegas].” Caruso explains that Kiss of Death was a disappointment not because it wasn’t good, but because he, the star, carried with him a bad rep connected with leaving the series.
“There was a take on me in the press that I was overreaching my boundaries, that I was doing movies for the wrong reason. That affects how you see the movie. People were rooting against it. You get buried under this kind of rubble. When I went into movies, the focus should have been on the movies, because that’s where the value is, as opposed to ‘He left the show. He’s a bad guy, a greedy show business rat.'”
While Kiss of Death could have been confused in the planning stages as a reasonable project, Caruso’s second big chance, the Joe Eszterhas-scripted/William Friedkin-directed Jade comes with no apparent excuses. It was a bad film almost by design. When I tell Caruso this, he says, “Cool. OK, man. But we took a version of the movie to the Venice Film Festival and got a fantastic response. We came away really excited because we were onto something. Then we came back to Hollywood and there were these elaborate discussions, these tests for audience reaction. We ended up releasing a version of the picture I feel had been victimized by the testing.
“I don’t look at Kiss of Death or Jade and go, ‘I should have picked other movies because I’d have a big movie career right now.’ I’m glad I made those movies because that’s where my contribution lies. I didn’t go to movies as a kid thinking, ‘God, I wish I could be in the big house that’s connected to making a movie.’ I thought, ‘I just want to be in the movie.’ I want to be with guys like De Niro, in that environment, and I’ve gotten to do some of that. As a young actor, all I was after was to sit with these people.”
“Did you ever have doubts,” I ask Caruso, “about whether your unconventional looks would work as well on the big screen as they had on TV?”
“There are so many things out of your control, man,” Caruso philosophizes. “Some people are an easier sell than others. There’s no question that film responds to some people. I mean, George Clooney? Wow, that guy just cuts the film. He cannot look bad and that, for a viewer, is a simple, digestible leap to make from TV to movies. I’m more a guy that has to grow on you a little bit. I don’t have that startling quality that some really great-looking people have.”
So, what exactly happens in Hollywood when one has a very public critical and financial letdown? Do the phones quit ringing? Do agents simply not return your calls? “With the business,” Caruso explains, “you’re either on the ‘list’ or you’re not considered at all. It’s all extremes. I had a really rough period, when Hollywood was reverberating from this whole ‘thing’ about me. When people at the studios were like, ‘Wow–what the fuck is this?’ and ‘What does it mean?'” And how do you refrain from having a meltdown at times like this? “I’ll tell you a secret,” he whispers. “I’ve learned that I can live without [success]. Because I didn’t have a choice. There’s a great line in a Bruce Springsteen song that says, In the end, what you don’t surrender, the world just strips away. It was stripped away from me. You find out you’re not going to die. You can live without it, even when you lose something that means that much to you.The roller coaster’s been good for me because maybe it made me better, more available–loosened me up. I was in the spin cycle for awhile. I stepped back and that gave me a chance to focus on what’s important.”
“Did you go into therapy?” I ask. “A while back, yeah,” Caruso nods. “Now I have a great therapist I talk to once a month just to check in. I met her through people in AA when I stopped drinking, which will be eight years in October. I had to be willing to make some extreme changes. I’ve been willing more recently to try and elevate the quality of my life, as opposed to playing the victim. We all get to a place where we want to be the victim. But one day, you look around and you’re still the victim and nobody gives a shit.”
How did Caruso manage to get back into the game? “The opportunities just started coming,” he explains. “I don’t think people have gotten a chance to [really] experience me yet. They kind of got a lick of the ice cream, then somebody threw the cone off the bridge.”
Caruso’s new TV series, Michael Hayes is, the actor hopes, a means of getting him back on the flavor list. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s not scary, because it is,” he says of going back to the tube. “Nowadays with TV, if you’re not getting numbers, you’re gone. It’s a single character show and if anything could be more demanding than NYPD Blue, this is. It’s about issues and relationships, which is the stuff I’m attracted to. How often am I, or is anyone, gonna get the opportunity to do that in features these days? And I’m one of the producers, so we’re going to be able to affect the schedule a little bit. As much of a grind as it is, it’s good for me to have a structured existence.”
Although Caruso has already made Gold Coast, Cold Around the Heart and Body Count, he’s more interested in discussing the film he’ll shoot during his series hiatus, The Insider, about a surveillance team posing as a family. Caruso’s Body Count director, Robert Patton-Spruill, is under consideration to guide him in this one, too. “This guy Spruill is a director,” crows Caruso. “We’re trying to corral him for another movie, because I’m very free around him.”
Caruso is eager to have ongoing professional relationships with people on his wavelength, perhaps because he has benefitted so much from the stability in his private life afforded by his marriage to Margaret Buckley, whom he met when she was his flight attendant on a N.Y./L.A. flight he took to surprise his young daughter on her birthday during the Kiss of Death shoot. At the time, this affair was a scandal and he took a lot of heat for it, but he has remained with Margaret for two and a half years now. “I’m very open to Margaret teaching me things that I’m adolescent about,” says Caruso. “I need schooling. Women are a lot more grounded in a way that you and I will never be. She’s a lot of fun, has a very fine-tuned sense of humor. Every day, I have to live up to Margaret, because she sets an ethical standard. She’s not going to let you take the low or the easy road.”
All this talk about amour reminds me of the screen chemistry between Caruso and Blue costar Amy Brenneman. Did that chemistry ever extend offscreen? “I’m not gonna answer that question, because my daughter and her friends read all this stuff,” the actor declares. “I will say that I was in another relationship at the time, and she was seeing [director] Brad Silberling, whom she married. We had a number of passionate scenes together and it’s hard, after they say, ‘Cut,’ to go your separate ways, because all of your emotions are happening. There was a weekend where I needed to call her and say, ‘Can we just talk? Because I’m sitting here with another lady that I’m in love with, but I’m a little lost and I need to tell you how I’m feeling.’ She wasn’t necessarily feeling the same thing, but I needed to own my feelings. I tell you, a magical thing happens when you’re willing to talk. [The emotional state I was in] just went like a mist, because it wasn’t real. It was conjured by an illusion.” Subject closed.
For a guy who’s not in a place to ask for much, I wonder what Caruso is asking from Hollywood now. “If there was just a little shelf I could occupy and people could come to that shelf for a hit or fix when they’re looking for that kind of resonance. Movies are about desire, because they’re impossible things to make. If you have people who have the desire, something can happen. I still have the desire.”
Since Caruso has probably gotten the most attention in his entire career from the time his butt was seen in all its glory in a love scene on NYPD Blue, I have to end by asking, “Now that Smits is doing the same, who would you say has won the battle of the bums?” Caruso laughs. “I would have to say probably Jimmy. There were some pretty great butts on that show. Mine wasn’t one of the great ones. My butt’s a little pale, if you know what I mean.”
“One last question,” I say. “What strength sunblock do you use?” Caruso laughs again. “Forty-five, man,” he shoots back. “Or Rust-Oleum.”
Stephen Rebello interviewed Sigourney Weaver for the September ’97 issue of Movieline.