Article on David Caruso as Michael Hayes

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"David Caruso"

'Michael Hayes,' CBS

UH-OH. IT'S ""MR. DIFFICULT'' again. David Caruso is in a steamy courtroom in Los Angeles, shooting a scene for his new CBS drama about a New York City district attorney. And he is not happy. ""That's not it,'' he seethes as he screws up a line he's already missed more than once. Another take. The notoriously moody actor smacks his hands together--""Come on!''--and walks off his mark to confer with the director. When he comes back, he still can't get Hayes's long speech to the judge quite right. ""He's such a perfectionist,'' says an awestruck stand-in. ""Just like De Niro, Pacino--all the great ones are like that. He's going for the truth of the moment.''

Actually, Caruso calmly says over lunch in his trailer afterward, ""I just couldn't remember my lines.'' It's Thursday, the penultimate shoot day of a sped-up Labor Day week. Acting as both star and an executive producer of ""Michael Hayes'' is taking its toll. (The show airs Sept. 15 at 10 p.m., before going into its regular 9 p.m. Tuesday time slot.) ""I never understood the concept of exhaustion until I did TV,'' he says by way of explaining why he went ""into the tank'' in the courtroom and why he was prone to similar funks on ""NYPD Blue.'' Another stress enhancer: Caruso's career may be riding on the success or failure of this TV comeback. Listen closely: you can hear the sound of knives being sharpened.

Few actors have been so lionized and so demonized so fast. As Det. John Kelly on ""NYPD,'' Caruso was hailed as the great red-haired hope of prime time, until his well-documented falling out with producer Steven Bochco over a movie deal led to his rapid exit from the show and a filmography that ran the gamut from bad to worse. ""I went from making a $50 million Paramount movie [""Kiss of Death''] to a point where there was no reason to own an answering machine,'' he says in the flat Brooklyn monotone that has always made him so credible as a cop. Off camera, Caruso's charisma loosens up. Mr. Difficult--the nickname inscribed on his chair on the ""NYPD'' set--becomes Mr. Casual: relaxed, jokey, colorfully conversational. He's 41 and, unlike most actors, taller in person, with an ex-jock's rangy swagger. ""The media, if they choose to,'' he says, ""can terminate your livelihood. If they decide you need to be called on the carpet, that's gonna happen to you. And Hollywood will abandon you in 20 seconds. I was shellshocked, and I didn't work again for almost a year.'' Then again, making ""Jade'' didn't help.

Suddenly, TV was looking pretty good. Caruso started talking to his agent about going back. He met with writer and mob scholar Nicholas Pileggi--whose book ""Wiseguy'' became the movie ""GoodFellas''--to discuss a script about a Manhattan district attorney. Other top writer- producers were recruited, including Bochco veteran John Romano, whose first words upon meeting Caruso were ""I hear you're crazy.'' Romano was persuaded otherwise: ""He's very afraid of coming back in a vehicle that is anything less than what he did before.'' Even when ""NYPD'' executive producer David Milch trashed Caruso on ""Charlie Rose'' in 1995 for ""making everybody miserable,'' he conceded that his performances were ""extraordinary.'' Caruso admits he could have been more pleasant in those days but doesn't apologize for the way things turned out. ""The truth about what took place is on the footage,'' he says. ""The footage is gonna transcend whatever celebrity grows up around the show.'' He remembers somebody telling him, ""Relax, man. It's only a TV show.'' His response: ""Not to me it isn't. I don't coast.''

He remains as intense about ""the footage'' as ever. Even when ""Michael Hayes'' lapses into courtroom-drama clichEs, Caruso's laserlike focus makes every line count. ""I have not lost my desire to do this. I am not going back to my trailer thinking about my golf score.'' Nor will he admit to having been humbled by ""the big crash,'' as he refers to his recent downward career spiral: ""I would say that I've been educated.'' Especially by his wife, Margaret, a flight attendant he met while making ""Kiss of Death,'' who stuck around even after that aptly named career move. ""If "Michael Hayes' doesn't work out, Margaret's still gonna be there,'' he says. ""That takes a lot of the fear out of it.''

Meet the new, evolved David Caruso. It's no accident that D.A. Michael Hayes is ex-NYPD--basically an evolved Det. John Kelly, forced to deal with more challenging bad guys: terrorists, mob bosses, city politicians. Caruso's character has more people working for him now, but he's still the Lone Ranger. ""Watching reruns of "NYPD,' I'm struck by how simple Kelly was,'' says Caruso. ""He has a real innocence that Hayes can't afford. In order for Hayes to survive, he's got to play the game. I'm not sure Kelly would have had the patience.'' Let's see if Caruso does."

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