‘Magic City’ drama moves to a midcentury Miami beat

The comparisons will be inevitable between the Starz drama “Magic City” and AMC’s critical darling “Mad Men.”

So let’s get a few of them out of the way.

Each is populated with drop-dead-gorgeous dames and rakishly handsome fellas. Both take place in the glamorous Rat Pack era — late ‘50s, early ‘60s — when stylish folks drove cars the size of luxury liners and ordered highballs for lunch. They name-check real historical figures like the Kennedys and Frank Sinatra, and social upheaval bubbles in the background. And the action centers on the workplace where all manner of intrigue and subterfuge happens.

But, according to “Magic City” creator Mitch Glazer, the two actually share little more than their midcentury aesthetic. The Starz show, launching in April, follows charming up-by-his-bootstraps Jewish hotel owner Ike Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who’s reluctantly in bed with the local mob boss, accurately nicknamed “The Butcher.”

“Magic City”: An article in the Jan. 8 winter TV preview section incorrectly identified one of the actors in the series “Magic City” as Seymour Cassel. The actor who plays Arthur Evans is Alex Rocco. Also, Mitch Glazer’s father was incorrectly identified as an electrician. He was an electrical engineer.

The setting, sun-soaked Miami Beach, is a powder keg: Fidel Castro has just come to power, causing an exodus of those opposed to the new regime and shuttering the American mob-run casino business in Havana.


Mafia kingpins like Meyer Lansky and Sam Giancana want to replace what they lost, setting their sights on legalized gambling in Miami. Wealthy and powerful exiles, plotting from 200 miles away in Miami, want to overthrow Castro and return home. And the CIA all but relocates its headquarters to the seaside Florida town to be at the center of the action.

If that’s not enough to separate the tropical, Latin-flavored “Magic City” from the waspy world of “Mad Men’s” Madison Avenue pitchmen, Glazer offered another tidbit:

“We have sexier clothes and more hugging,” the executive producer-writer said. “I don’t see any crossover other than the time period, really. The stakes are different. It’s a world apart.”

Period gangster films like “The Godfather” and “Casino” may be closer cousins because of the heavy crime element and violence at the core of “Magic City,” said Glazer, who wrote the features “The Recruit” and “Scrooged.”

Television has been fixated on the highly stylized post-World War II era recently, trying, as TV does, to create more hits cut from that cloth. “Magic City,” which will unfold in eight hours, comes on the heels of one outright flop, NBC’s “The Playboy Club,” which lasted only a few episodes last fall, and one less-than-stellar performer, ABC’s struggling “Pan Am.” Both glossy-looking period pieces tried to ride the nostalgic wave that “Mad Men” ignited.

Glazer said he’s not trying to replicate AMC’s awards-laden drama and, in fact, had pitched “Magic City” seven years ago, pre-"Mad Men.” CBS passed on the project, and Glazer revived it after meeting Chris Albrecht, the former HBO head who now runs Starz, Liberty Media Corp.'s pay cable and movie unit.

In addition to building some 200,000 square feet of period-rich sets, the show gathered a diverse cast that includes Danny Huston as Miami’s mob chieftain, former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko as Evans’ wife, Seymour Cassel (“Rushmore”), Michael Rispoli (“The Taking of Pelham 123") and Glazer’s wife, Kelly Lynch (“Drugstore Cowboy”).

Media watchers like Rafael Lima, a former network TV writer who’s now a professor at the University of Miami, said the area went from sleepy boondocks to bustling crossroads of the world during the era depicted in “Magic City.” Though he was young at the time, Lima said he remembers what a political hotbed it was, with members of his own Cuban family meeting with the U.S. military about the Bay of Pigs invasion.

“Miami in the ‘50s had such a rich texture and so many fascinating characters, I’m surprised it hasn’t been used as a backdrop for TV before,” Lima said. “It was ‘Mambo Kings’ and ‘Casablanca’ rolled into one.”

Those characters — cops, feds, soldiers, revolutionaries, “made” men, high-priced call girls, famous singers and comics — all rubbed elbows in the lobbies and nightclubs of swank hotels like “Magic City’s” Miramar Playa, a fictional stand-in for the Fontainebleau.

Glazer said he feels a particular kinship with the time and place because he grew up in Miami Beach, where his father worked as an electrician in the luxury hotels he’s depicting. Glazer spent some teenage years as a cabana boy, a bottom-rung job that he writes into his protagonist’s resume.

He’s been researching the characters and stories for “Magic City” all his life, Glazer said, and many are composites of people he’s known and tales he’s heard over the years.

Glazer wouldn’t share any spoilers, but suffice to say beautiful broads and poolside cha-cha lessons will coexist uneasily with bloody shootouts and assassination plots.

Morgan, who said there’s “nothing television-y” about “Magic City,” described the series as “an edgy, dangerous, beautiful, sexy eight-hour movie.”

His character, smooth on the outside, is actually tormented. He’s not a dark antihero in the now-popular cable-TV mode, but he makes questionable calls, digging himself deeper and deeper into trouble, Morgan said.

“You start off thinking he has the world by the tail — he has a beautiful family, he owns this jewel of Miami Beach,” Morgan said. “But you learn there are chinks in the armor even though he’s trying to keep up appearances. No one knows the desperate position he’s in.”