Is David Caruso Too Good to be True?

That red-haired guy and CSI: Miami put us back on the media map

Americans keep the TV on seven hours a day, on average, almost as much time as they spend sleeping. So why shouldn't our dreams derive from television and movies? We each have a lifetime of experience seeing solutions in 60 minutes or less. Our heroes find love, killers commit crimes, get caught, etc. It's only fitting to want neatly wrapped conclusions to life's real dramas.

And Caruso is perfect for the part of avenging angel. "Are we OK with this?" he asked us repeatedly in his role as Det. John Kelly. When we weren't, we wanted him to fix it. That's the persona he has carefully cultivated -- our suffering savior from the streets, with a leather sap and a crucifix. All his characters, villains and heroes alike, share a similar pre-modern morality, a 1950s clarity about right and wrong. Including his latest. "Horatio Caine, his grounding, I believe, comes from a deep sense of morality," Caruso says. "He will do what he believes in, but he will also do what is necessary."

Caruso pours himself into every role, a white-hot core of righteousness seething just below the surface. He's anything but handsome by the standard definition of movie-star good looks, yet it's almost impossible to break eye contact once he walks into a scene.

Caruso and Procter: Forensic sleuthing
Caruso and Procter: Forensic sleuthing

Caine, he says, is an "amalgam of a number of characters that I have played," and one that he has been building toward since he started out as an actor, making $25 a pop to appear as a criminal in police lineups at New York's 112th Precinct. He's played many cops along the way, chasing Christopher Walken in King of New York, partnering with Robert De Niro in Mad Dog and Glory. Even Michael Hayes was a former cop turned prosecutor. Now Caine.

Every time, he went in hoping he would pull it off with such "authenticity" that we would forget we were watching David Caruso the actor and focus on the character he was playing. That intensity, and, probably, the red hair, has caused repeated comparisons with legendary film icon Jimmy Cagney, which Caruso clearly enjoys.

"You gotta remember that he wasn't a redhead when I discovered him," Caruso says, "because he did black and white films. I was attracted to Cagney for the reasons of electricity. I mean this guy ... I think the best quote is Billy Joel, when somebody said to him: 'Are you aware that people think you're trying to sound like the Beatles?' And he goes, 'Of course I'm trying to sound like the Beatles!' I think that is a brilliant answer to that question. So, y'know, who isn't trying to be like Jimmy Cagney? I mean, how can you not? If you're an actor you're trying to be like Jimmy Cagney."

Like Cagney, Caruso pushes with all he's got. But it can backfire. That connection with the audience, that bond he forged so well as John Kelly, contributed at least in part to his downfall after he left NYPD Blue. His audience felt betrayed. This man they had grown to trust and care about just walked out on them one fine day -- in search of a fatter paycheck. (He wanted $100,000 an episode, as opposed to the $20,000 per he got in the first season.) Early feedback Zuiker got indicated the audience still felt resentful and might reject Caruso again. "Some women, before it was airing, were telling me in Las Vegas and California they weren't sure about David Caruso, they still had that sort of weird feeling about it," Zuiker says. "And I was like, 'Oh, shit.'"

But when the show aired, it went through the roof, just as the first CSI with William Petersen did. The first episode of CSI: Miami got the highest rating of any drama premiere since ER, with 23 million viewers. It's hovered near there ever since. "When the episodes started coming in, the same women were saying they loved Caruso. They find him sexy. And they feel when he comes into a scene, he's going to make things OK," Zuiker says. "And that's a big thing. Women need to feel comfortable and [safe] as they watch the show. And that's what he's done."

Caruso recognizes the damage he did to himself with "the NYPD Blue thing," and the Archbishop Molloy High School graduate from Queens, New York, proclaims his mea culpas loudly and often as he talks about "the journey I'm on of rebuilding that trust" with the audience, and his employers.

"I think that I'm just in a better place to appreciate what this opportunity is all about," the older and supposedly wiser Caruso says. (He's 46 now.) "It was almost ten years ago, and I've had a lot of time to learn about what the job really entails, to understand the industry from a different perspective." ( The abrupt departure of Kim Delaney as Caruso's co-star this fall -- she lasted only ten episodes -- was attributed by some to Caruso's resurgent temper whiteouts: "Before [the show] aired, David tried to be humble," a set insider said. But the moment CSI: Miami hit big, he reportedly began acting like he was responsible, demanding script rewrites, screaming that he had "to do every fucking thing myself!" CBS issued a statement saying only that Delaney's character "was becoming less integral to the series," and so she was written out.)

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