Longform

Is David Caruso Too Good to be True?

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From the opposite side, networks found success in the heavily massaged reality TV shows such as Survivor, where the outcomes were known in advance and episodes were carefully edited to build dramatic tension. Dramas pumped "realism" into their shows -- as in Law & Order's "ripped from the headlines" storylines -- and found a tantalizing new way to hook viewers. Flipping through the proliferation of channels on cable and satellite TV, it became harder and harder to discern the difference between the realities of Biography and Boomtown.

After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it wasn't just the viewers who turned to Hollywood for help. In a bizarre recognition of the impact of fantasy on our new post-9/11 culture, army planners actually huddled with screenwriters and asked them to concoct ways terrorists might attack, so that the military could prevent them, according to the New York Times and Variety. Among the scribes at the secret brainstorming sessions was Steven E. de Souza, the co-writer of Die Hard, the immensely popular 1988 action flick in which Bruce Willis battles a band of suspected terrorists who take over a Los Angeles skyscraper.

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.

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.'"

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Matthew Alman