Born in 1956 in the Forest Hills section of Queens, New York, Caruso grew up idolizing old-style movie stars like Jimmy Cagney and Spencer Tracy, mainly because they were redheads like himself. He was so moved by their works -- and so frustrated by life in New York -- that he set out for Hollywood in 1978, where he discovered that pale, skinny redheads with thick outer borough accents weren't exactly a hot commodity.
He would work fairly steadily for a decade, but almost exclusively as either cops (most impressively in "Mad Dog and Glory") or thugs. He had a small recurring role as an Irish gang leader on "NYPD Blue" creator Steven Bochco's "Hill Street Blues," but it was so minor that Bochco had to be reminded of it when Caruso auditioned for the role of John Kelly.
The part had been intended for Jimmy Smits -- the character was called Flinn until Smits turned it down -- but was little more than a sketch until Caruso walked in and wowed Bochco and co-creator David Milch. They were impressed by his passion, as well as his unconventional look, and gave him the biggest break of his career.
Unfortunately for all involved, the fire that made Caruso's portrayal of John Kelly so inspired made Caruso a tremendous pain for anyone on the show to work with. Milch loved Caruso's work, but hated working with him, and would later devote several chapters of his book "True Blue" to detailing Caruso's on-set tantrums. (In the most memorable one, he allegedly kicked a trashcan at an unsuspecting Dennis Franz's head during a scene.)
Still, he was good enough that Bochco and Milch wanted to keep working with him, but Caruso's one season of stardom had swelled his head a bit much. (He even admits that now.) He asked for a major-league raise in pay for the second season, asking for $100,000 an episode (as opposed to the $20,000 per episode he was paid in the first season). In addition, he made two seemingly contradictory demands: he wanted more emphasis on Kelly and less on Sipowicz (Franz had been getting the better material towards the end of the season), but also wanted more time off to work on movies. A compromise couldn't be reached, so finally Bochco decided to continue the show without Caruso, who had to agree to appear in season two's first four episodes in order to be released from his contract to do movies.
His decision was not a particularly wise one. His first film as a leading man, "Kiss of Death," received good reviews for his performance, but did lousy at the box office. His second film, "Jade," didn't even get the good reviews. Add that to his reportedly difficult behavior, and he quickly found the well of leading roles dry. He was offered a role on a new legal drama in development for CBS, but had to plead with Steven Bochco to let him out of the agreement he signed when he quit Blue which said he couldn't work in television until his original contract ran out. That show, Michael Hayes, was canceled by CBS after only one season.
On the plus side for Caruso, his mostly humble behavior on and off the set of the show went a long way towards rehabilitating his image within the industry -- and while Bochco says he'll never work with Caruso again, Milch says he's now open to the possibility.
Not that Caruso has much spare time these days, since he's the star of CBS' popular spin-off "CSI: Miami."