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COVER STORY : Det. Kelly's Public Hell : When David Caruso left 'NYPD Blue,' fans were heartbroken, even enraged, about this betrayal . But Caruso had to follow his own path. Let him explain, from the set of his next project.

March 12, 1995|Daniel Howard Cerone | Daniel Howard Cerone is a Times staff writer

SAN FRANCISCO — On a bitter-cold January day in San Francisco, hundreds of extras gather on a narrow Chinatown street colorfully decorated with streaming banners and floats for a Chinese New Year's parade. Director William Friedkin, who staged celebrated chase scenes for "The French Connection" and "To Live and Die in L.A.," has worked up another one for his latest movie, "Jade," leading to this densely populated street.

"Please, we're about to shoot," an assistant director shouts into a bullhorn. "Nobody laugh or smile."

The crowd, huddled patiently on the curb, eating noodles and rice from white cartons, seems to ignore him--until a woman takes his bullhorn and repeats the instructions in Chinese. The crowd slowly swirls into motion.

A grip lights an array of fireworks, which respond with screams and smoke streams. On their mark, the extras, many of them carrying banners or sparkling spinners at the end of long sticks, whip into a sudden frenzy and storm a silver Ford Taurus, stuck at the end of the street behind a huge float. They attack the car with rage, pounding on the windows, their sheer mass threatening to overturn the vehicle.

Inside the car sits David Caruso.

He's not in an entirely unfamiliar place--the center of sound and fury.

One year ago, the redheaded actor from Queens could do no wrong. After 15 years of reaching for the golden ring in feature films--brushing the metal with his fingertips on several passes in strong supporting roles but never quite able to grasp it--Caruso woke up one morning a TV star.

But after one demanding season as the soulful detective in ABC's award-winning police drama "NYPD Blue," Caruso bolted when the big screen beckoned, alienating TV audiences and critics in the process.

"So it turns out that David Caruso is not the saint he plays as Det. John Kelly in 'NYPD Blue,' " wrote Newsday TV critic Marvin Kitman in August, signaling the hailstorm of taunts and snide remarks that have dogged Caruso since he left the show. "He is an ordinary showbiz greedy rat who puts his personal career ahead of the TV viewers who made him what he is today."

Caruso does, in fact, have his huge TV following to thank for Paramount Pictures' willingness to gamble on him as the leading man in "Jade," in a role Warren Beatty was once in discussions to play.

Back on the "Jade" set, once the fireworks die and the automobile stops rocking, Caruso emerges from inside the car. His head slowly rises above the crowd, his fair skin and wispy red hair almost electric against the gray sky. He looks around, and his thin lips curl into arare on-set smile. Everyone in the narrow street erupts in cheers and applause.

*

"Ultimately, when I started acting, this is what the goal was for me--to get to this level of production," Caruso says a few minutes later, breaking his self-imposed moratorium with the press. "I mean, I was an usher at a movie theater when 'The French Connection' happened. It was a huge hit, and to be working with Billy at this stage of the game is ideal for me."

A flash rain has driven everybody off the streets of Chinatown for the time being. Caruso waits it out inside his trailer, smoking a cigarette, recalling the dreams that began when, as a latchkey child raised by his divorced mother, he watched Bogart and Cagney movies on a 13-inch black-and-white TV set. They were heroes in control of their universe, companions for a boy who felt alone and out of control.

Now he has joined his legends on the big screen. "Jade," which is due from Paramount in October, is Caruso's second starring role in a feature film. He completed his first one last summer, playing the Victor Mature role in a loose remake of the 1947 film "Kiss of Death," when he was on hiatus from "NYPD Blue." "Kiss of Death," co-starring Nicolas Cage, is being released by 20th Century Fox next month.

Yet despite realizing his dream at 39, the struggle for control remains.

"Sometimes the press seems to either drive a wedge, or create a wedge, that I don't necessarily think is there," says Caruso, who agreed to talk about his controversial departure from "NYPD Blue" to clear the air about his film career.

"Because to be honest with you, I don't have any ill feelings about the people on 'NYPD Blue' or the show," he says. "I mean, how could I possibly feel that way? I look back at what we did and what was accomplished and how it has affected my life. You know, I'm in a great situation as a result of that work and that exposure."

In the $40-million "Jade," Caruso plays a D.A. investigating a psychiatrist--his former girlfriend--in the murder of an art dealer. He co-stars with two other hot Hollywood comers: Linda Fiorentino, the femme fatale in John Dahl's "The Last Seduction," and Chazz Palminteri, nominated for a supporting actor Oscar in Woody Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway."

For Caruso, trading in a successful TV series with many prosperous years ahead for a chance at movies was a risk; after all, a bad film can break a career.

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