David Caruso, whose career crashed and burned after he deserted NYPD Blue in 1994 for the big screen, has one word to describe how he felt about getting a plum supporting part in

Proof of Life — "grateful."

"This is the first major movie I've done in five years," marvels the actor, who in 1997 attempted a small-screen comeback with the short-lived CBS drama, Michael Hayes. "Taylor Hackford, who last directed me in An Officer and a Gentleman, really went to bat for me. I don't know whether this is going to get me some offers again, but I hope so."

Shrugging off the memories of the media assault he faced when he left the hit ABC cop drama after little more than a year to pursue a film career, Caruso insists he sees himself as a trailblazer for other TV stars, like ER alum George Clooney. "When I jumped ship, there was no precedent," he says. "It seemed like an either-or proposition. I was the first guy that went through the mill. Now, actors seem to move effortlessly back and forth from television to movies."

In Proof of Life, Caruso based his scene-stealing role as a K&R (kidnap and ransom) operative on a real-life negotiator. "He is an ex-CIA guy, and he still e-mails me," Caruso says, "but I have no idea where he is, because I have to use this specially encrypted software to communicate with him."

As for the real-life romance that blossomed between Proof stars Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe, Caruso swears they managed to keep him in the dark about it. "When you're falling in love on camera, you have to make yourself naked to the process," he says, "otherwise it's going to look phony. I thought I was just watching two actors dig into the script and allow some chemistry to happen."

Caruso admits that he knows something about making pretend love for the cameras. "I can speak from experience," he says. "I was in a film which I won't name, and I was portraying this really intense emotional relationship with an actress. We wrapped on Friday night, and I woke up Saturday morning really missing her, which was not good because I'm married to somebody else. So I called this young lady up and we talked for about three hours and worked through it. It was kind of amazing. It seemed real, but it just vaporized."