- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 26, 2000

What ever happened to David Caruso? In Hollywood, it is more a warning than a question. The backside-baring actor with blazing orange hair that would make Ronald McDonald jealous ditched "NYPD Blue" after its first season. Planning to become a movie star, the Golden Globe winner instead became a model for how to wreck a perfectly successful career. Now Mr. Caruso stands to become the poster boy for comebacks.

After five years of flops, a humbler, but still fiery, Mr. Caruso finally has a high-profile role, in the thriller "Proof of Life," alongside Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan. Mr. Caruso plays Dino, a ransom expert who hooks up with Mr. Crowe's professional hostage negotiator to rescue Miss Ryan's kidnapped husband in South America.

After his 1995 box office dud, "Kiss of Death," and the unfortunate follow-up "Jade," Mr. Caruso knows "Proof of Life" is a rare professional second chance.

"Believe me when I say I wasn't getting a lot of phone calls to be in big pictures, and [director] Taylor Hackford did not have to cast me," Mr. Caruso acknowledges during a recent Beverly Hills interview. "It means a great deal that he trusted me and allowed me to participate. It's a big deal to stand in the frame with Russell Crowe. And it's a big deal for me to say, 'Gee, that's Meg Ryan, and I think she's listening to me.' "

Mr. Caruso already was a huge admirer of Mr. Crowe before winning the opportunity to co-star with him. From an actor's standpoint, says Mr. Caruso, the "Gladiator" superstar embodies the passion and serious dedication of a master, recalling the movie stars who first inspired Mr. Caruso to take up acting as a boy in Forest Hills, N.Y.

"I've worked with some really good people, and I have to say that he's on his own level," Mr. Caruso says. "And a lot of that has to do with his presence, who he is. I don't want to go over the top, but I do mean this. Every generation, somebody comes out of the woodwork and reinvents this process and makes this process sacred again. There's a business aspect to all this, but beyond the numbers is the purity of what attracted me to this process, and Russell Crowe embodies that."

With its Oscar-baiting release date and glamorous story line, "Proof of Life" is the kind of film that earns accolades for cast and crew. While Mr. Caruso admits that he dreams of winning awards like everyone else, not all victories have to come with a trophy.

Simply participating in an "A" movie is reward enough at this point, because it means that the door Mr. Caruso slammed shut behind him when he left a hit TV show has reopened.

"To participate on this level is what every actor dreams about," Mr. Caruso explains. "And not to minimize it or sound corny, but to stand in the frame with Russell, at this time, is significant. It means that maybe the industry trusts you a little bit.

"My basic goal was to not go down to South America and hurt these scenes," he says. "And also, I wanted to support Russell in the way that he deserves. That was my job, because this is a significant moment for him. The satisfaction for me comes if I can go onto a job like this and support and not hurt the situation."

Rather than jumping into headlining roles like he tried in 1995, Mr. Caruso, who turns 45 next month, is content to slowly work his way into the spotlight.

Co-starring roles and ensemble acting will be his bread and butter for a while, as Mr. Caruso earns back the fame he once enjoyed.

His next step in that direction is the low-budget tale of terror "Session 9," a "really wild little movie" scheduled for release next year.

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