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.

Daniel Howard Cerone is a Times staff writer

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.

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"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.

"Yeah, it's a gamble, but it's the path I'm on," Caruso says with what sounds like religious conviction. "I mean, this is bigger than I am. It's like, I have to go this way. This is the direction. 'Jade' was calling me, and it wouldn't go away. It presented the perfect move."

But if it proves to be the wrong move?

"I've lived without this type of notoriety before, and that's an extreme advantage," he says simply. "Because if I have to go to that place again, my whole identity is not at stake, you know? I mean, I can live. I can live."

Caruso never planned to do television in the first place.

Before "NYPD Blue" brought Caruso into America's living rooms, the actor had steadily built up a film resume in solid supporting roles--a naval recruit in "An Officer and a Gentleman," the nice cop in "Rambo," a cat burglar in "Thief of Hearts," a vigilante cop in "King of New York." He was always a minor supporting the majors--he played Robert De Niro's understanding partner in "Mad Dog and Glory"--familiar to directors and producers but lesser-known to the public.

When Steven Bochco was searching for a lead actor two years ago to anchor his racy new police drama, he asked Caruso to screen-test for the role of Detective Kelly, an emotionally scarred man who absorbs others' pain like a sponge. Bochco, who created "NYPD Blue" with David Milch, remembered Caruso from an impressive guest-starring role on his earlier creation "Hill Street Blues."

From the start, Bochco detected Caruso's ambitions.

"It was always clear that David's heart was in the movies," Bochco says. Nonetheless, he pursued Caruso, he says, "because he is a very gifted man, an enormously compelling presence, and he was simply the right person for the role. There was some anxiety from the beginning that it would not be a day at the beach, but I didn't care."

Caruso initially turned down Bochco's invitation to test.

He changed his mind--partly because he needed the work, partly because he liked the writing.

"I read the script and it was like an old Jimmy Cagney movie, you know? It read that way on the page, and I just went, Wow ," Caruso says.

When "NYPD Blue" premiered last season amid scandal over its nudity and tough language, viewers across America embraced Caruso's compassionate cop, raising "NYPD Blue" to the ratings elite. Caruso--a loner from a broken home, twice divorced, familiar with 12-step programs--easily slipped into the role of the tortured Kelly. One close friend describes Caruso by saying: "He leaks pain."

In a matter of weeks, magazines exalted Caruso in profiles that read like love letters. Tabloids mooned over his bare ass, branding him a sex symbol. Critics voted "NYPD Blue" the best program on television. A Golden Globe was bestowed upon him for best actor in a dramatic series.

"It was an intense thing for me, and when I say intense, I mean passionately intense," Caruso says. "We were onto something, and I think we all knew it."

But shooting eight or nine pages of a script each day was a new experience for Caruso, who was used to a slower pace on feature films. And much of "NYPD Blue" was resting upon his shoulders. Stories from the set began circulating in Hollywood: Caruso was difficult to work with, he showed up not knowing his lines, he berated the writers, he cost the production hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost time.

"I was not prepared for the exhaustion level," Caruso says. "I'd never experienced anything like that before. I had four days off in 40 weeks. If there were times where I lost my cool or whatever, it was just out of total exhaustion."

Last summer, not long after receiving an Emmy nomination for "NYPD Blue," Caruso turned his back on all of it. After passing by Caruso the wallflower for so long, the film industry finally extended an invitation to the big dance.

French director Barbet Schroeder, who received an Oscar nomination for "Reversal of Fortune," had Caruso high on a list of actors he wanted to work with. Last year, Schroeder had what he thought was the perfect leading role for Caruso, in a film, "Kiss of Death," that he was going to shoot in Caruso's stamping ground around Queens, N.Y.

"David has this quality you don't find today in actors, which is a complete natural," Schroeder says. "He has the quality of the great actors of the '30s and '40s. It's true. There are at least three names: Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Cagney, Spencer Tracy--all these people were really naturals. When you're trying to do a modern film noir, to have someone who reminds you a little bit of the heroes of the invention of the film noir is very good."

In "Kiss of Death," which also stars Helen Hunt and Samuel L. Jackson, Caruso plays yet another tough but tender character, this one an ex-con blackmailed by a district attorney into infiltrating a drug ring in New York's criminal underworld. The script was written by Richard Price, who wrote "The Color of Money," "Sea of Love" and "Mad Dog and Glory."

When Schroeder pitched Caruso to the executives at 20th Century Fox, they scratched their heads for a while, Schroeder says, but they ultimately approved, swayed by Caruso's sudden popularity. For "Kiss of Death," Caruso earned $1 million.

"The camera loves him," Schroeder says. "Something magical happens. That's the true quality of a star, and that has no price."

As "Kiss of Death" was nearing a wrap, when Caruso would have had a week to report to the "NYPD Blue" set, movies were tugging at his heart. He received half a dozen offers, but the project he really wanted was "Jade," the third in screenwriter Joe Eszterhas' trilogy of thrillers set in San Francisco (along with "Jagged Edge" and "Basic Instinct"). Caruso's agents had earlier called the producers to express interest, only to learn that it would be shooting the same time as "NYPD Blue."

Caruso says that the only time he can remember seeing his father cry was when the two were watching "On the Waterfront" together when he was a boy and a broken Marlon Brando uttered his famous line, "I coulda been a contendah." Last summer, Caruso saw his own shot at the title, and he was not willing to subjugate his lifelong dream to make someone else happy. He had worked too long and too hard.

"The show happened on its own," Caruso says of "NYPD Blue," adding that he decided to become an actor as a hard-boiled teen-ager sitting in a theater on the rainy opening night of "The Godfather." "When the motion picture stuff started to loom into the equation, it kind of took on a momentum of its own. If you're out there trying to make the right career moves, and you sacrifice the thing that inspired you--your jumping-off point, why you're there--well, what are you doing ?"

Everything began to unravel in August.

The trades reported that Caruso was demanding an outrageous $100,000 an episode to return to "NYPD Blue," almost triple his first-season salary. To everyone's surprise, Bochco and Milch decided to let Caruso out of his multiyear contract, scrapping seven episodes written during the summer. They hired former "L.A. Law" regular Jimmy Smits to replace Caruso, whom they wrote out in the third episode this season.

In November, 29 million viewers tuned in to watch Caruso walk.

"In the immediate aftermath of those events, the people who were outraged at us for letting him go were people who felt betrayed," Bochco recalls. "At the risk of getting myself into trouble, it almost felt like sexual betrayal. The overwhelming majority of those letters were from women, and they were mean letters. They couldn't stop calling us terrible, terrible names--the kind of names if somebody looks you in the face and calls you, you end up in a fistfight."

All along, Caruso kept his mouth shut, choosing not to cooperate with those selling the controversy.

"I felt that if I had jumped in and started defending myself or trying to clarify the issues, it would only make it worse," he says. "I was concerned about participating in something that I felt did not reflect what we were doing on the show. It was painful to feel some of the reactions, mostly because people didn't have the facts."

Caruso says he and his representatives tried to find a way for him to remain on the show and do movies at the same time. Caruso hoped to film his "NYPD Blue" scenes early in the season and insert them into later episodes.

"Contrary to popular belief, I was extremely disappointed that we couldn't work it out, because I wanted to do both," he says.

That's not how Bochco remembers it.

"His attorney, in fact, presented us with two different scenarios for David's return to the show--an A scenario and a B scenario," Bochco says. "But he prefaced those two scenarios by saying that David's real preference was to be let go entirely so he could pursue his movie career."

According to standard procedure, cast members routinely renegotiate their initial deal when a new series turns into a hit. However, the two scenarios laid out for Caruso were anything but standard, Bochco says, involving a laundry list of extraordinary demands--from taking Fridays off, to working only 15 of the 22 episodes. Bochco believed that he was being presented with an impossible deal so he would break the actor's contract.

What had Bochco most baffled was Caruso's behavior. During the summer, Bochco says, he and his wife met the actor for dinner in New York while "Kiss of Death" was in production. Afterward, Bochco dropped Caruso off at his hotel and they embraced. That was the last time the two men saw each other. When Caruso's lawyers and agents began negotiations, Bochco says, Caruso would not take his phone calls or return them.

Then there was the matter of that salary. Did Caruso really demand $100,000 an episode?

"The money thing was baloney. All that's not true," Caruso says firmly--at first. When pressed, Caruso relents, saying, "Well, not seriously ."

He suggests that the $100,000 figure might have been thrown in as a bargaining tool.

"The agents and the attorneys do their thing," he says. "I definitely do not involve myself in that, because I do not in any way want to poison the creative relationships, or even the personal relationships. But as I said before, the issue was the schedule and not the money."

On that point, Bochco agrees.

"This was never about money," he says. "Money is endlessly negotiable within certain parameters. When everybody wants the same thing there is a dollar figure that individuals of reasonable goodwill will agree to."

Caruso knew that leaving the show would throw it into disarray, disrupting the lives of his co-workers while disappointing fans. But did he wrestle with it--the way John Kelly might have?

Not really--no time.

"Man, it happened really quickly for me," he says. "And believe me, nobody was more surprised than I was. I guess there was some abandonment. It was just a runaway train, bigger than me. And I'll tell you one thing, you're going to burn out your emergency brake if you try and stop it."

Bochco's decision to let Caruso out of his contract was an easy one.

"I had to pay very close attention to the needs of an entire work force of cast, crew, producers and writers," says Bochco, who still has fond feelings for Caruso. "When you perceive a severe environmental problem, and it's compounded by the clear implication that the man really doesn't want to be here, then it's a pyrrhic victory to try to enforce a contract."

When asked about his personal feelings for Bochco and the other producers, Caruso says his regard for them is in the quality of his work on "NYPD Blue."

"Bochco believed in me and gave me the opportunity of a lifetime," he says. "I gave him everything that I had. When I look back at 'NYPD Blue,' I wish the show well. I was never really the star of anything before, and I made mistakes."

Within 24 hours of Caruso's release from his TV contract, says "Jade" producer Craig Baumgarten, the script was in Caruso's hands. A few nights later, Caruso, Baumgarten and director Friedkin met for dinner at a small Italian restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard.

"After dinner, David walked away and Billy and I looked at each other and said, 'This guy understands this character,' " Baumgarten says. "We said, 'He's our guy.' "

Paramount executives agreed to give Caruso the lead role in the film and offered him a deal worth $2 million to $3 million. John Goldwyn, president of production for the studio, acknowledges that Caruso's popularity from "NYPD Blue" was a factor.

"There are certainly many examples in recent history of television actors who have made the transition to features extremely successfully," he says, citing Jim Carrey, Tim Allen and Woody Harrelson. "I have to say that we were all hoping and betting that David Caruso would join the pantheon of television stars who have become movie stars. There's a certain level of expectation in the film-going community based on his work in television, and we want to capitalize on that."

Production of "Jade" was pushed back a few months to late January, giving the producers time to cast around Caruso. Baumgarten says that he had heard stories that Caruso was prickly but that he has found no grounds for them.

"I can't tell you how wrong those reports have been from our experience," says Baumgarten, who expects "Jade" to wrap next month. "David has been great to work with. He wants to get it right. That's not being difficult; that's really having a fine-tuned sense of doing the best work possible."

When the rain outside Caruso's trailer stops, he returns to the set in Chinatown. Later the same night, he sits down for a casual interview over dinner at an "in" San Francisco restaurant. He's joined by his girlfriend, Margaret Buckley, a flight attendant he met six months ago.

Caruso has drawn fire in his personal life as well as his professional one. Paris Papiro, his ex-girlfriend, has filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit in California Superior Court to recover her share of the partnership assets accumulated during their relationship of four years. The trial date is set for November. For Caruso, the pressure never seems to let up.

" 'NYPD Blue' really prepared me for the responsibility of the center of the screen and the overall arc of the story," says Caruso, who shows up for dinner comfortably dressed in black jeans, a Nike T-shirt and a leather jacket, standing out in a stuffy environment of pressed slacks, wool jackets and ties. During the course of the meal, the waitress brings him several appetizers, courtesy of the chef, apparently a fan.

"Some of the things that took place on 'NYPD Blue' were my inexperience at dealing with the pressure of being the main guy. But I think I'm a little more comfortable with the focus being on me," Caruso says.

Since he left "NYPD Blue," the show has soared to new ratings heights this season, ranking as the No. 7 program in prime time. Caruso's not surprised. He believes that "NYPD Blue" built a solid foundation its first season through its vision of hope.

"We created something last year that's indelible," he says. "It had become such a part of the culture so quickly, and it was so synonymous with quality, that the show wasn't going to go away. The foundation is so strong that they can try whatever they want, and they're not going to lose their viewership."

When Caruso is asked if he misses John Kelly, he quickly points out that Kelly was a creation of his, but he adds, "I certainly aspire to be somebody like him. I don't think I could ever be him consistently, but . . . I'm giving it a shot, you know?"

When asked if there's anything Caruso would like to tell people who might have been let down by his career choices, he sits back and reflects for a moment, before beginning slowly.

"In the final analysis, I have deep respect for the dialogue that I have opened with the audience," Caruso says. "I'm confident that we can get through the painful period. I'm hoping that they'll be open to some new experiences with me and not too closed to trust me again. And maybe they could reserve the right to shape their own opinion, and not have it shaped for them."

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