Jack Morrison in St. Elsewhere

David Morse - Proof of Life

12/8/00 St. Louis Post-Dispatch



Joe Williams Post-Dispatch Film Critic

It's a Hollywood version of the tortoise and the hare. Two fine actors graduate from popular television series and embark on film careers. One makes headlines when he bolts from a hit show after one season, signs a lucrative studio deal and stars in a pair of big- budget movies. The other works his way up through small supporting roles in Hollywood films and larger roles in offbeat indies. Today it's the tortoise who is garnering the accolades, while the hare is grateful for any work he can get.

The tortoise is David Morse. The hare is David Caruso. The two actors co-star with Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan in the thriller Proof of Life, which opens today. The slow-and-steady Morse has a showcase role as a kidnap victim, while the once-torrid Caruso plays a sidekick in a relatively small number of scenes.

From 1982-89, Morse played Dr. Jack Morrison in the critically acclaimed ensemble drama St. Elsewhere. The birth of the character's son at the end of the first season provided the ratings boost that kept the series from being canceled, and the death of the character's wife in the second season propelled the show into the rarefied air of perennial Emmy contenders.

But whereas Morse was a loyal soldier for the duration of his television series, Caruso jumped ship. When it premiered in 1993, NYPD Blue was an immediate hit with critics and audiences, and Caruso as Detective John Kelly was the main beneficiary. The intense redhead was hailed as a sex symbol, and big-money offers poured in.

"After four episodes, I was offered a movie deal at a million dollars a picture," Caruso recalls. Caruso signed the deal, earning the scorn of many in the television community.

Caruso, who previously played bit parts in the first Rambo movie and the Bruce Willis fiasco Hudson Hawk, was handed the starring role in the hard-boiled Kiss of Death with Nicolas Cage. The movie flopped. He then starred opposite Linda Fiorentino in the steamy thriller Jade. It likewise failed. For much of the '90s, Caruso struggled to find suitable projects and counter his reputation for arrogance. In 1997, he returned to series television, starring as a federal prosecutor in the short-lived CBS series Michael Hayes.

Caruso acknowledges that Proof of Life is his first major movie project in five years. He plays Dino, a competitor-turned-colleague to kidnapping expert Russell Crowe. Caruso, 44, compares the role to Claude Rains' part in Casablanca, and in his brief time on-screen, he imbues the character with an ad-libbed irreverence that balances the dour professionalism of Crowe's no-nonsense negotiator.

While Caruso's star was burning bright, the tall and soft-spoken Morse was paying his dues in TV movies and supporting roles in big-budget action films such as The Rock. Morse, 47, has specialized in authority figures: military officers, doctors, detectives. His performance in The Green Mile as the tough-but-fair jailhouse guard Brutus "Brutal" Howell nudged him toward a new level of stardom.

In Proof of Life, Morse plays Peter Bowman, an American engineer who is kidnapped by South American guerrillas. Morse says it's a step up from his usual role as a cog in the plot apparatus. "This time I get to kiss the girl," he says, referring to Meg Ryan, who plays his wife.

Morse says that Proof of Life was the most physically demanding project he's ever done. To simulate the failing health of the kidnap victim, Morse lost 25 pounds in the course of filming in the Ecuadorian highlands. The weight-loss regimen was overseen by the same doctor who worked with Tom Hanks on Cast Away.

Morse figures he can have a longer and more rewarding career if he balances heroes and villains, big-budget Hollywood films and low-budget indies. "I don't want to be boxed in, like I was with St. Elsewhere," he says.

Earlier this year he co-starred with the Icelandic pop singer Bjork in Lars Von Trier's musical melodrama Dancer in the Dark. His complex portrayal of a kindly police officer who betrays a blind neighbor is worthy of Oscar consideration.

Morse, who has won numerous awards for his work in the theater, says he loved the experience of working with the maverick Von Trier because it allowed him to improvise much more than he could in a conventional Hollywood film. Morse also has a fruitful partnership with another maverick director, Sean Penn, who cast the actor in The Indian Runner and The Crossing Guard.

Caruso, too, has a patron saint. He credits Proof of Life director Taylor Hackford with reviving his film career. Hackford, who gave Caruso a small role in An Officer and a Gentlemen in 1982, cast Caruso in Proof of Life after auditioning dozens of other actors and consulting with Crowe. "David Caruso has a lot of demons," Hackford says, "but I think that's what allows him to do good work."

Caruso says it took courage for Hackford to take a chance on him. "Not a lot of directors are willing to put David Caruso in a big movie," the actor says with an unmistakable note of humility. "But I've stayed the course and continued to participate, so maybe now people can get past my reputation and focus on my work. In the end, that's all I've got."



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