Back on the Beat
01/13/2003 at 01:00 AM EST
Nearly a decade after he walked off the set of NYPD Blue in 1994 and found himself wandering the desert of big-headed has-beens, David Caruso talks with almost willful humility about the folly of quitting a breakout TV series after one season. "I was gripping everything too tightly," he says. "I had no perspective. In Hollywood, if you have any success, you have this fear: What do you have to do to hang onto it? And I didn't realize that if I just could have relaxed into it, I probably wouldn't have pushed it away."
In a nutshell, he says, easing into a laugh, "I learned that unemployment can be the great educator."
After failing to click as a leading man in movies (Jade, Kiss of Death), Caruso has returned as forensic investigator Horatio Caine on CBS's CSI: Miami. Since its fall debut the CSI spinoff has been the most-watched new series, and Caruso, 46, is being welcomed back. "Caruso," wrote The Washington Post's Tom Shales, "has lost none of [his] magnetism." He also still has that carrot-orange hair and talks in a terse whisper that commands attention. "David's a low talker," says Khandi Alexander, who plays coroner Alexx Woods. "You have to lean in to hear."
He managed to anger almost everyone into stony silence back in the NYPD Blue days. With its 1993 debut, Caruso became a star and a brat: Within a year he was reportedly demanding a tripled salary—$100,000 an episode—plus breaks that would let him shoot movies. He left four episodes into the second season. "Any story you've heard of my behavior," he says, "is probably true."
Fresh rumors sprang up recently when Miami costar Kim Delaney was gone from the show after only 10 episodes. Everyone insisted there was no tension between the two stars, only that Delaney's character wasn't developing. Which isn't to say that Caruso, who won't talk about Delaney, is some pussycat. "David has high standards," says Khandi Alexander. "I wouldn't say he's 'difficult.' I haven't seen that."
She wasn't looking at the young Caruso. His first marriage, to actress Cheri Maugans in 1979, foundered because "I was a young 23—with a really bad report card," says the Queens native, referring to a drinking problem that undermined his second marriage as well, to actress Rachel Ticotin, mother of his only child, Greta, 18. "I drank from ages 13 to 33," says Caruso, the son of Charles Caruso, a magazine editor, and Joan, a librarian. "Getting sober was the best thing that ever happened to me."
The next best thing was meeting flight attendant Margaret Buckley, 33, whom he wed in 1996. She restored calm after Caruso's stormy breakup with Paris Papiro, an ex-masseuse he lived with in the early '90s. Papiro sued him for $8 million in palimony in 1994 (the case was settled for an undisclosed sum). "Margaret was the anchor," he says. "My goal is to live up to her." His determination to fly straight impresses and touches her. "I respect him so much," she says, "because he was willing to admit his faults openly."
On working days they retire to their 2,800-sq.-ft. home in Bel Air. But before the new series began shooting they were spending most of their time in—ta-da!—Miami, a city he fell in love with while shooting a Showtime movie in 1997. While she was opening a furniture and clothing boutique there, he was in their South Beach home, toying with new series ideas to jump-start his career—none of them related to CSI. "I wasn't in the loop." Actually, he was. "His name kept coming up," says series co-creator Anthony E. Zuiker. "We kept hearing how his head was screwed on right." Now Zuiker crows, "Ten years from now they'll call us geniuses for hiring him."
Caruso has no intention of letting renewed glory sidetrack him from family. "When I go to exercise class," says Margaret, "he has tea waiting for me when I get home." He's close to daughter Greta, a Yale freshman. "David is a fashion plate, and Greta has his style," says sister Joyce Caruso, 45, a magazine writer. And he remains something of a father figure to Houston Papiro, 14, his ex-lover's nephew. "Houston says he likes the show," says Caruso. "He'll go, 'Dude, that was tight.' "
Caruso agrees about the show, but he's cautious. "It'd be great to play Horatio Caine for a long time," he says, sounding that note of hard-earned modesty. "I'd be happy to do that."
Lorenzo Benet in El Segundo, Calif.