Is David Caruso Too Good to be True?

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Anthony Zuiker, the 34-year-old wunderkind creator of CSI and its Miami spinoff, the two top-rated dramas on CBS, wanted to pass on Caruso when the actor's name first came up as a possible Caine: "I'd heard about the NYPD Blue thing," he says sourly. The NYPD Blue thing -- code for Caruso's rep as one of the industry's infamously explosive egomaniacs, prone to notoriously divalike outbursts (he once stormed in, kicked a wastebasket, and barely missed Dennis Franz's head during the shooting of a scene) and his eventual flaming walk-off four episodes into the second season.

Now there was a moment: David Caruso, head swollen with a Golden Globe Award for his portrayal of NYPD Blue's sensitive, soulful Det. John Kelly, and armed with an offer of one million dollars for a movie role, climbed up on the Hollywood high dive and did a phenomenal belly flop for all the world to see. He quit over a very loud, very public, and bitter contract dispute, saying, "NYPD Blue will not be successful when I leave." Wrong. The show not only survived, it flourished. His movies, on the other hand -- Kiss of Death, Jade, Session 9, and other even lesser-known efforts -- bombed. He scurried back to the safety of television, and flopped again. Michael Hayes, his 1997 return to the tube, died after a single season. He became a sad South Park joke: One of the cartoon kids, inciting his brother to take a dive off a high perch, says, "Do your imitation of David Caruso's career!"

Even Caruso acknowledges the profound impact of NYPD Blue. Sooner or later, every interviewer brings it up. "If I had it to do over again, would I do it differently? Absolutely," he says. "Would I have stayed with the show? Absolutely. If I could have had a fantasy version of it, it would have been that I got the motion picture attention two years in, so that at least I would have had some foundation for the whole thing.... But that's not how it happened."

So when Caruso's name came up for the Miami spinoff, Zuiker says, "I sort of jumped in and said, 'Naw, I don't know about this guy. The show's tough enough to get off the ground and I don't want to walk into any problems.'"

But here they were, executive producers Ann Donahue, Carol Mendelsohn, and Zuiker, racing headlong toward shooting the first Miami episode with the first CSI: Miami crew -- hell, CBS president Les Moonves had already announced in January that there was going to be a Miami extension -- and still trying to figure out who would play the lead. "It wasn't until we sort of, like, at the eleventh hour, really started to look at our options as to who was going to play Horatio," Zuiker says. "And we revisited Caruso. And we said, 'Yeah, we'll have him come out for dinner, see what he's about.'

"And, all of a sudden, twenty seconds in, y'know, we're kicking each other under the table going, 'This is the guy.' I mean, he was such a true gentleman. And such a reformed man. And such a gentle, simple man -- who was so intelligent talking about the philosophy of evil until one in the morning. He was just like fucking mind-blowing. I'm like, 'Oh, my God!'" Hollywood types talk like that.

If it's difficult to separate the actor from the role, it would hardly be the first time people have found Caruso and his characters meshed. One of the things that impressed Zuiker at the dinner with Caruso was the story he told "about how, on September 12, he'd get phone calls from people in New York City who would say, 'What are you going to do about this thing that happened on September 11?' They were still looking to him. He had such a rapport and bond with America that they were actually [expecting him to deal with] the World Trade Center disaster. They were used to him making things OK on NYPD Blue."

So, in the new millennium, we look for our heroes in the same place we find our villains. We see bin Laden threatening on the nightly news, and it's only natural that we seek our savior a channel or two away. TV has become our mind's eye on the world, a dual conduit inundating us with both information and entertainment. And somewhere between Vietnam and Afghanistan, even the newsmakers recognized the need to merge the two. Anchors are chosen for audience appeal; high-tech graphics and special effects put sizzle on that boring news beef, with sound bites and video doled out as fixings around the commercials: "More on the war in a minute, but first this word from Eggo!"

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Matthew Alman