His flaming red hair exploded off of every newspaper and magazine cover in 1993, when David Caruso was the breakout star of the new TV season in the ABC cop drama “NYPD Blue.”
Even before it aired a single episode, Steven Bochco’s “Blue” was a raging controversy. Coarse language and partial nudity had conservative coalitions fuming, especially one led by the Rev. Donald Wildmon and his American Family Assn., all saying that “Blue” had lowered broadcast decency to unacceptable standards.
So with all that swirling publicity creating huge audience turnout for the pilot, a relatively unknown Caruso — as Det. John Kelly, a take-no-prisoners cop trying to make his deteriorating partnership work with Dennis Franz’s recently shot Det. Andy Sipowicz — came of the gate blistering hot, and a major TV star was born.
“The show was going to be about David,” says “Blue” producer Bill Clark and a former NYPD detective. “He was No. 1 on the call sheet.”
But it all went south quickly. Caruso wanted a bigscreen career, his ego got the best of him, and after only one season, he was off the show.
And now, thanks to people such as Les Moonves, Anthony Zuiker and Ann Donahue, he’s back with a new attitude, another hit show and creating a new legion of fans who have no idea of where he’s been and how he got here.
“NYPD” went on an incredible 13-year run, and when asked what his life and career might’ve be like if he had been around all that time, Caruso reflects, but has no regrets.
“It’s tempting to look at it that way, but we have moments of fate, and my TV career took a certain turn,” he explains. “A lot of it (his departure from ‘Blue’) was beyond my control, and a lot of it was by my making, my ignorance.
“Sometimes you get an opportunity, and you’re in the middle of everything, and you can’t really see through it all. I had some time off, the ability to mature and appreciate it when ‘CSI’ happened.”
Although his film career floundered, Caruso’s turn in “Proof of Life” stuck with CBS topper Moonves. When it came time to cast Lt. Horatio Caine — who first appeared in the mothership “CSI” series but was always intended as the lead character for spinoff “CSI: Miami” — Caruso was one of everyone’s top choices for the role.
“I met with the senior producers of ‘CSI,’ and it immediately became obvious to me how much I wanted to work with them. They were telling really unique stories and creating such a hypnotic world, one that you can’t walk away from.”
Caruso brings that sense of urgency that he formulated as Kelly to Caine, as head of Miami’s crime scene investigations unit. His one-mindedness when it comes to getting the job done — whether it was arresting perps in Gotham or solving south Floridian murders — is something that has made Caruso a unique actor.
Newark Star-Ledger TV critic Alan Sepinwall, who created a blog on everything “NYPD Blue” and is one of the most knowledgeable people about the show’s history, says it’s to Caruso’s credit that he became the focal point of “Blue.”
“He didn’t look like a leading man, but he had leading-man intensity,” recalls Sepinwall from “Blue’s” first season. “He had those odd readings, the way he would tilt his head. … Caruso is the classic example of the actor who does one thing but does it really well. That intense ‘I’m going to do whatever it takes to get the bad guy’ persona. He stays within that range, and people dig it.”
That intensity can sometimes take his fellow “Miami” actors by surprise, as they all say he’s one of funniest people on the set. And they all agree that he’s a real pro when it comes to moving production along and making sure everyone’s doing their jobs.
Fellow “NYPD” thesp Gordon Clapp is glad to hear that things are working out so well for Caruso on “Miami.” He, like many of the other folks on “Blue,” got caught up in the Sturm und Drang of Caruso’s departure.
With all backstage tumult going on, what’s often overlooked now, Clapp explains, is how good an actor Caruso was on “Blue.”
“It was the perfect marriage of actor and role,” Clapp says. “His work was seamless. I got something from him as an actor, but didn’t realize how good he was until I saw him onscreen.”
Caruso connected with “Blue” fans the way he has formed a relationship with the “Miami” faithful. The show is a stellar performer for CBS as it begins its fifth season, and for the 50-year-old actor, his journey has been rocky but, ultimately, a worthwhile one.
“It all feels pretty great,” he says. “Your relationship with the viewer is intimate, and I understand that.”