Cop Out...or In?

updated 08/22/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/22/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

TALK ABOUT A BLUE MONDAY. Fans of NYPD Blue panicked at reports early last week that David Caruso, who plays tough yet hug-happy Det. John Kelly, wouldn't be returning to ABC's gritty show unless executive producer Steven Bochco raised his salary—roughly tripling it to $100,000 per episode. However, Caruso reported to work the following day to begin shooting NYPD's second season, and an ABC statement said simply that all "differences have been settled." Sunny Tuesday, folks?

Not in the opinion of one ex-associate of the 38-year-old actor's, whose orange hair and weathered good looks have made him a heartthrob and arguably the key to the show's success. "Huge egotism such as his could be accepted only in the entertainment industry," the ex-associate grouses of Caruso's salary demands. "If he had a real job, he'd have his ass kicked every five minutes."

In fact, that famous derriere, glimpsed in the show's first season, probably won't be around the 112th precinct much longer. Threatening to walk is a familiar bargaining chip with stars, but it looks as if Caruso is serious. A source close to the star says Caruso, who's up for an Emmy (one of the dramatic series' record 26 nominations), never received an offer that came close to matching his $100,000 demand, and he will definitely exit at some point in the new season. The incipient TV star is eager to graduate to top movie roles, which he has always considered his primary métier, and he has just finished shooting the thriller Kiss of Death, in which he plays an ex-con trying to go straight. His fee: a reported $1 million.

Back at the precinct, Bochco reportedly was already searching for a replacement, sending out feelers to former L.A. Law star Jimmy Smits. The rest of the cast was left to ponder whether Caruso's departure will severely damage the show—especially with the crucial female audience. Last season, Amy Brenneman, who plays Kelly's sometime lover Patrol woman Janice Licalsi, noted, "What David brings to his character is that he's trying to express his emotions, but he also can sweep you off your feet and protect you. The honesty in his struggling to figure out what life and love are all about is appealing to women."

Then again, maybe the cast's spirits will be buoyed. Long before the salary dispute, Caruso was showing movie-star temperament (albeit with a dash of humor, as evidenced by the Mr. Difficult sign he taped to the back of his chair on the set). "The contrast between him and [costar] Dennis Franz is startling," says one producer who has worked with both actors. "Like Mephistopheles and John the Baptist." (Fellow lead-actor Emmy nominee Franz, who plays grubby Det. Andy Sipowicz, gets the halo.) A guest star on one episode recalls having to do endless retakes of a scene because of Caruso's perfectionism. "All day and night for something that should have taken a couple of hours," he says. "Nobody is that good."

One agent who knows the actor suspects the real motive of Caruso's salary demand was to establish himself as a player—"a force to be reckoned with in the movie industry. But it's a dangerous game." Just ask any of the TV stars who've abandoned hit series only to see their big-screen ambitions fizzle. Last week, Jay Leno's Tonight Show monologue included some advice. "I have only two words for David Caruso," Leno said. "Shelley Long."

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