Trapped in the fame game

DAVID Caruso always wanted to be a movie star, right from the days when he worked as an usher in his native Queens, New York. For years, the Irish-Sicilian actor hovered around the fringes of stardom; first as a guest star on Hill Street Blues, then in An Officer and a Gentleman, King of New York, and finally, Mad Dog and Glory opposite Robert De Niro.

Caruso's performances were always picked out by critics for special attention, but he was far from being a household name until Steven Bochco cast him as Detective John Kelly in the gritty TV drama series NYPD Blue.

His on-screen nudity in a prime-time TV show enraged the bible belt of America, which duly tried to ban the series, and his name went up in lights - big.

The movie offers finally came in. 'The show,' as he calls it, was top of the ratings. But soon he was to experience the downside of 'instant' fame.

David Caruso left NYPD Blue to go back to movies and make Kiss of Death for director Barbet Schoeder.

And the same press he had courted for the show's first season turned around and savaged him.


'They wanted to ruin me,' he says. 'If they could, they were going to destroy me and ruin whatever equity I had built up with the audience.

'And I was hurt. I think a lot of people who don't know me think I'm a bad guy, think I'm a greedy guy, think I'm difficult to work with and all that.' It's unclear whether the American press spontaneously turned on Caruso or whether Bochco was orchestrating a campaign to force his Detective John Kelly to sign on for a second series.

All of a sudden, reports started to appear claiming Caruso was prone to tantrums on set, that he made unreasonable demands, was unpopular with his colleagues, that he had become intoxicated by fame and dumped his long-time 'plain Jane' girlfriend for a starlet, that he wanted US$100,000 per episode for appearing in NYPD Blue.

'That's not what I was asking for, that's not true,' he says. 'It wasn't easy to walk away from the show, but that was about all the movie offers I had received and how complex my life had become.


'I had no way of knowing whether the movie offers would be there in a year - America is so fickle that a year from now, you know, you're history.' Caruso wanted to play both cards; take guest slots on NYPD Blue, while still appearing in his beloved movies.

'They weren't open to it, they weren't open to any flexibility. But it's their show, and they do what they want to do; I couldn't make them see the logic.' In the end, Caruso was replaced by Jimmy Smits.


But he refused to fight through the press. 'If they can open a little vein on you and get you to bleed it becomes a feeding frenzy.

'I did not choose to participate in that. I didn't respond. I didn't start talking to the press until the release of Kiss of Death because I wanted to come out and talk about something substantial - not that kind of stupid game,' he says.

In the end, Kiss of Death, which co-stars Nicolas Cage and Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction ) opened to glowing reviews - and, more importantly, high grosses at the US box office.


A personal vindication for Caruso? 'In a way, because it was a nasty attack. They didn't want me to succeed - the stilettoes were out. After that happens to you a couple of times you build up a little scar tissue. I think I've weathered the storm and I am really proud of the performance in the movie.

'Hopefully we'll move on to a new chapter now - because I feel I have things to contribute, things to add. Why dispose of somebody like me? I have something to offer . . .' Caruso was at the Cannes Film Festival, promoting Kiss of Death, which has received an ecstatic reception in Europe.

With incredible Irish colouring - he is at least as pale as he appears on screen, and certainly the red hair is even more pronounced in real life - he sits in the shade wearing mirrored sunglasses, so it's hard to tell what's going on behind the lenses.


He can come across as arrogant, and Hollywood doesn't like to take that from a 'TV star', but he deserves his place in the sun. He's made some inspired choices.

Kiss of Death is a re-make in name only of the 1947 film noir. In it, Caruso takes the part of Jimmy Kilmartin, a small-time con trying to get back on the straight and narrow after a spell in prison.

But he's pressurised by his old cronies to take part in one last job - which plunges him into a scenario of twist and double-twist as he turns informant on his friends, and the DA turns on him.

It's a dark, realistic thriller with Caruso giving a restrained performance - which at the same time suggests a blinding, inner panic.

'I imagine the character's whole day, and I imagine the two or three minutes from that day that the scene isolates. I don't want to give a performance, I want you to see me behaving as the character would. Just behaving,' he explains.

And Caruso has just finished the psycho-sexual legal thriller Jade for director William Friedkin, scripted by Joe Eszterhas (Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct ). It's a big-budget blockbuster ('a lot of sex, a US$5 million car-chase scene'), with the weight of Paramount behind it.

It will be a success, or, as he puts it: 'If the audience doesn't respond to Jade - this is going to sound incredibly arrogant - I think it's going to say an awful lot about the future of movies.

'It took us almost six months to film this movie. So much care was given to it, the performances and the look. And we never walked away from something, not once. If this doesn't work, I have my answer about where it's all going.

'But until I can't do this any more, I'm going to pursue it the only way I know how - I don't care what the trades say, what the numbers say, I'm only working if it's worth it.' Because Caruso feels Hollywood is treading a slippery slope. He says he took the roles in Kiss of Death and Jade 'because I think they will last far beyond their release in the cinema and people will rent them and talk about them and they will become part of people's lives.

'As opposed to your average Hollywood affair today, which is so disposable - even if it comes out and makes US$50 million you'll never talk about it again. In a way, it's designed to do that, to pass through the system. And the audience's requirements have become so low; they don't demand anything of their entertainment, it's pretty much fast food. Is that what we really want? Is that reflective of who we are? That seems a little light to me.' You see, Caruso is on a mission. 'In hindsight, it makes sense I would do this, but movies were the thing that kept me going all my life. I was the product of a divorce, I was alone a lot. I had a little black and white television and the way kids lean on rock and roll, I leaned on the movies. I took my guidance from them. Because I took so much from them, I was anxious to give something back. Contribute. Because I think you have to put back.'