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The Return of CARUSO

'Nypd' Alum Is Back Pounding A New Beat, A Little Chastened And A Lot 'evolved'

September 14, 1997|JUDITH MICHAELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alone in his trailer the size of a small apartment, David Caruso is the gracious host. He offers up a plate of fruit to share, then checks--"do you mind if I eat?"--thrusts a fresh Diet Coke at his guest and insists that back-to-back interviews during a sudden break on CBS' "Michael Hayes" are no problem. "These are important pieces," he notes with choir-boy earnestness.

Caruso--the brooding redhead who turned his back on a superstar career on ABC's "NYPD Blue" three years ago to jump to big-time movies--intense and temperamental?

Not a chance.

After all, "Kiss of Death," the movie for which he was paid $1 million, and "Jade," for which he got $2 million, went belly-up. The actor who had played good-guy Det. John Kelly was himself cast as the bad guy and called a "greedy rat" for deserting his TV fans. And he suffered nearly a year's unemployment, not knowing from where his next part would come. In the midst of all this, he married Margaret Buckley, a former flight attendant. It's his third marriage.

Caruso, 41, appears calm, confident and, in the end, chastened. His title role in "Michael Hayes," as the newly appointed acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York (Manhattan and the Bronx), is his ticket back.

"This is what I want to be doing," says Caruso, who is also one of the series' six executive producers, "this show. I'm getting to do the kind of material and work on the level I'm interested in. I'm getting to do the work I tried to do in motion pictures, and [that] I did get a chance doing on 'NYPD Blue.'

"The neat thing about doing TV now," he continues, "is that [in movies] there is so much pressure on the giant opening weekend that in a lot of ways they have to streamline the product to make it accessible and digestable to as many people at once. I don't have that constraint. I can reach for the moon on 'Michael Hayes' in terms of quality and intelligence."

And he's playing a good guy again--an ex-homicide detective from a blue-collar background who put himself through law school at night and became a federal prosecutor.

" 'Michael Hayes' is the logical next step for me," says Caruso, "because of the federal level he is on. I couldn't go back to doing street cases. I couldn't go back to being a detective. Michael Hayes is a more evolved character."

Besides, there are such story possibilities with the feds. "We have people like Tim McVeigh and John Gotti and Ramzi Yousef [the accused mastermind in the World Trade Center bombing], a whole other level of criminal, of sociopath. The Trade Center bombings, Waco, Oklahoma City--we can do our own amalgamated versions of [those kinds of] stories."

Caruso's return to series TV began last summer when his agents talked to writer Nicholas Pileggi's agents. The two met for lunch in chic Amagansett on Long Island and clicked. With former U.S. attorneys Robert Morgenthau and Rudolph Giuiliani in mind, Pileggi--a longtime journalist who adapted the screenplays "Casino" and "GoodFellas" from two of his books--had been "toodling around with some ideas" involving the office. He created "Michael Hayes" with John Romano, a former executive story editor on "Hill Street Blues."

"When David Caruso came into it," Pileggi noted, "all of a sudden things began to perk. He's an extraordinary actor. He can do more with less than anybody. That look in his eye, the intensity, the way he turns his head ... "

With the roles of Kelly and now Hayes, it's easy to assume that Caruso came from working-class roots, and that his career got started with "NYPD Blue." Not so. His father, Charles Caruso, who had been an editor at Newsweek, divorced his mother Joan, a librarian, when he was 2. The actor has a younger sister Joyce, now a field producer for "Good Morning America."

He was a lonely, latchkey kid growing up in Queens who discovered acting by watching Jimmy Cagney movies. He never went to college--"I needed to be financially independent [and] to start my life." He left New York in 1978, when he was 22, for Hollywood.

In 1982, he appeared as the introspective pilot who nearly drowns in a crash test in "An Officer and a Gentleman." At the same time, he got noticed as the angry Irish gang leader on the first two seasons of "Hill Street Blues." His role as the brutal Irish cop in "King of New York" (1990) drew acclaim. Finally, stardom with "NYPD Blue" in 1993--which he quickly tried to parlay to leading-man status in the movies.

While his departure from the ABC police drama weaves through the interview, only after 90 minutes does he own up to something he has not quite said before.

While he talks about being "the first [TV] guy in a long time" to get such attention from filmmakers; of "exhaustion" after "56 weeks in a row" doing "Kiss of Death" and "NYPD Blue"; of being in a situation where "circumstances handcuffed the [negotiation] process"; of being just a "passenger" in his own destiny, and of his regret at not having been "more of an adult," it is only toward the end that he finally allows that he shouldn't have left.

"I was trying to listen for the right advice, follow my own instinct and the situation got away from me. . . . I could have said, 'No, I'm not going to go down this road. I'm going to stay with the show, and I'm not going to gamble with my livelihood here.' "

Caruso says he's still interested in making feature films--but now he'll do it while the series is on hiatus, "if it will increase my visibility [and] help the show."

"Michael Hayes" premieres Monday at 10 p.m. and thereafter will be seen Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on CBS.

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