Tough on top and mad below

David Caruso has been told by Hollywood for years that he doesn't have appeal, that he has no range. But that was before NYPD Blue led to Kiss of Death. Stardom has not made him forget the slights of the system, though, as he told John Lyttle
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David Caruso is half-Italian and half-Irish. Today the Irish half is winning. The man is potato famine-thin and as pale as a whitewashed ghost. The only flash of colour is the red shock of hair. Naked, he must look like a Swan Vesta. Which is no way to be thinking, not when the body language is so compelling; tight, reined in, a little boy trying to keep still in church. That, or a New York hardass detective, struggling to contain his feelings, because night and the city are waiting to mess them up. It's hard to say which. Both perhaps. Tough on top, understanding underneath. That's his appeal.

Appeal? Caruso knows all about appeal. He's heard for years that he doesn't have it. For instance, does anyone remember him as DeNiro's cop partner in Mad Dog and Glory, a role in direct lineage to John Kelly in NYPD Blue, the part and the show that turned it all around for him? Caruso remembers: "My manager and I took four agents to a screening of Mad Dog and Glory and we came out of the screening and... no one wanted to represent me. Nobody thought I could ever get the girl on camera. They told me I was intense but had no dimension."

Caruso loosens up, leans forward. "Two weeks into transmission of NYPD Blue those same four agents are on the phone, begging."

Payback time. David Caruso has just wrapped the pounds 50m Jade, from a script by Basic Instinct writer Joe Eszterhas and now he's in London town to promote Kiss of Death, his first stint as a fully fledged star - and as the hero. To read some of the press, you'd think he'd never been on a film set, as if he'd never stolen the show in An Officer and a Gentleman or become what he himself calls "an industry secret" after playing the meanest of mean bastards in Thief of Hearts, way back in 1984. Caruso shrugs. "If I showed you my notices from An Officer and a Gentleman to Mad Dog and Glory you'd think this guy's got to have a big film career." Only it wasn't quite like that. Hollywood had decided that he was villain material, that his red hair meant he couldn't get the girl. (Imagine the casting conversations: "David, baby, name another carrot head who laid the leading lady." "Uh... Cagney?") And the movies he appeared in bombed and bombed again, even though for a couple of seasons "I was the new resident bad guy. Paramount even fashioned a role for me in Walter Hill's Blue City - I was a bad guy again - and I got great reviews. I kept getting great reviews. And the movies kept losing money. So in Hollywood the notices meant nothing. It was yeah, that's great, now what was the gross."

So Caruso sits in his hotel suite, nominally promoting Kiss and his pressure cooker performance as Jimmy Kilmartin, the former small-time crook at the calm centre of Barbet Schroeder's unflinching noir, and instead rages against the machine that said he had no range and no romantic interest: "Let me tell you about the studios. They have these giant buildings and hype and statistics and demographics ... and nobody knows anything."

He has a right to anger. At 39 he's coming late to global celebrity. And it's the system that wasted his time while he was trying to build a screen persona he could live with and the public would cotton on to. And a restrained identity too, more Spencer Tracy than Burt Lancaster. Not the sort of choice the boys in Beverly Hills can cope with, but certainly the right tack to take if you want to be branded, as Caruso has been, Mr Difficult (his canvas chair on NYPD Blue actually bore this moniker - he meant it as a joke). Yet Caruso does little more than speak as he finds: "I wouldn't make a decision on what to do next, or on a role I like, based on its commercial potential. Forget it.

"I don't want to go home thinking I know I'm not very good in this picture, the crew knows I'm not very good in the picture and we all know the picture is a piece of shit, but it'll make $200m. And I can take solace in that, but I know the truth - the real truth - about me."

The real truth is hard to find since his departure from NYPD Blue. He's so fervent about creative endeavour that it's impossible to credit the salary demand rumours.

He groans. "It's not the truth." Heavy pause. Caruso has avoided mouthing off. "I determined really quickly that to defend myself would have made it worse" - but having been vilified by the tabloids ("a greedy, cheese- eating showbiz rat") and been wished "inner peace" by NYPD producer Steve Bochco, he's a tad testy. "Okay, I'm not a guy who's going to kiss your ass 24 hours a day, I am going to challenge you on material, I am going to ask questions about everything. I'm that sort of guy, but I'm not the other sort of guy.

"I didn't want to leave the show. But I did want to incorporate other opportunities into the television world. If you could have had a noticeable film star on a network show, it could have been interesting. We were talking then about doing a NYPD Blue feature, too.

Caruso sits on his hands. "I have to say it hurt. The other part of that Bochco quote was that 'Caruso's heart is in the movies'. Now, you look at my work in the movies and my work in NYPD Blue and you tell me my heart was somewhere else. You tell me."

The voice trails off. He's grateful to the show, because it proved he "could do it all" but it was a trade-off. He brought things to the part too. Complexity, stillness, an ordinary sort of urban pain. He wasn't prepared for the tidal wave - "The first million dollar movie offer came in the second week" and neither was the Bochco organisation. "For some reason they couldn't cope with one of their employees getting a certain type of attention. They were angry about it. Maybe they thought it would be taken as another Bochco ensemble show. But that didn't happen. That's all I can say. They were just really angry.

"One day the truth about the Bochco organisation will come out. I will say this to you... We had an agreement that we would not talk about the specifics of my leaving. Within four hours of the commencement of the meeting where that agreement was reached, all of the details of that meeting were in the press. Okay? Now, I've certainly kept up my half of the bargain... until this day."

Having waited so long, has it been worth it: the bitterness, the publicity, the betrayal, the girlfriend / PA now suing for millions since their relationship shattered? Does David Caruso feel vindicated?

"Hey, man, I can look people in the eye. I know what people have done behind my back. I know what's going on... I know what my life is all about."

Which is? "Huh... Have you seen the advertising line for Kiss of Death?" Yes, but remind me. Say it. Caruso manages a smile admirers will recognise as ironic. "It says, 'Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger'."

n 'Kiss of Death' opens today