After an unsuccessful run on the big screen, the actor is returning to prime-time crime with a new CBS series

The news that David Caruso is coming back to TV in a fall series, Michael Hayes (debuting on CBS Sept. 15), has been greeted in the media with a collective ”We told you so.” These same nattering nabobs of negativism vilified Caruso after he left NYPD Blue to pursue movie stardom. When his big-screen vehicles Kiss of Death and Jade tanked, it seemed like a fait accompli. As Caruso recently told EW, ”Maybe there was a feeling of ‘Why should we support this guy if he’s abandoned us in the past?”’ Now the question is whether Caruso can recapture that old Blue magic and get TV viewers back under his spell.

Me, I’m rooting for the guy. Perhaps that’s due to a personal experience I had in 1995. Driving to interview Caruso for an EW cover story on Kiss of Death, I parked my rental car across the street from his home on an L.A. canyon road. Suddenly, my tires started to slip, and my car slid back onto a low stone wall. After a few minutes spent spinning my wheels, I sheepishly knocked on Caruso’s front door to ask for help. I had never met the man but of course knew of his reputation for ”difficult” behavior. To my surprise, he happily jumped into his truck and pushed my dangling compact back onto solid ground.

I didn’t recount this anecdote in my article; it seemed to reflect more on my bad driving than his good citizenship. But now that I think back on it — and watch old episodes of NYPD Blue — it seems a key to Caruso’s appeal. This is a guy you want in your corner when you’re in a jam, whether it’s criminal or automotive.

It was Caruso’s strange mixture of intensity and sentimentality that made him a blazing star when Blue debuted in 1993. As Det. John Kelly, he exuded a tough love for his alcoholic partner, Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz). When Andy was gunned down in the pilot, Kelly came to his bedside and delivered a tearful monologue. Here was a cop comfortable enough with his masculinity to hold his injured cohort’s hand and say, ”You’re like a father to me, man.” Such emotional volatility was a far cry from the deadpan robo-cops (starting with Dragnet‘s Sgt. Joe Friday) who had previously populated the small screen. Caruso was a hot star in a cool medium. No wonder he burned out so fast.

The cadaverously pasty and flame-haired Caruso was not your typical TV star (or sex symbol). Which was why CBS’ original pilot for Michael Hayes was such a disappointment — it looked like your typical TV show. As a federal attorney, Caruso displayed his trademark coiled charisma, but every ”surprise” plot twist (an explosion, a suicide) was painfully predictable. An actor who breaks molds deserves better than this assembly-line material.

The good news is that CBS has shot a prequel to the Hayes pilot, and EZ Streets creator Paul Haggis has joined the series’ cadre of exec producers (including John Romano of Class of ’96 and GoodFellas writer Nicholas Pileggi). Haggis’ gift for off-kilter storytelling and dark humor should mesh well with Caruso’s sensibility. And EZ‘s biggest drawback as a gritty crime drama — a lead (thirtysomething‘s Ken Olin) with zero street cred — shouldn’t be a problem, as Caruso has that quality in spades.