MIAMI - Mitch Glazer and half a dozen of his buddies were sitting in a booth at Wolfie's Restaurant in Miami Beach one afternoon in the late 1960s, chattering and laughing and generally being teenage loudmouths, when a waitress walked over to ask them to keep it down. They did, for a moment, but soon the volume dialed back up. The waitress returned. Nodding to a white-haired man a few tables away, she amended her request: "Mr. Lansky would appreciate it if you could be a little quieter."
"Man, you could hear a pin drop," recalls Glazer, laughing now as he certainly did not then at the mention of Miami Beach's resident Mafia don, Meyer Lansky. "But that was just part of the air we breathed in those days."
Now it's part of the air executive producer Glazer breathes into "Magic City," his loving and fearful television ode to the gangsters, grifters, spies and hookers among whom he grew up on the Beach. Back for a second season in its 9 p.m. time slot on the cable channel Starz, "Magic City" is as darkly delightful as ever.
Ike Evans, the beleaguered owner of the Miramar Playa hotel, is trying to rid himself of not-silent-enough partner Ben Diamond, a psychopathic gangster. Evans' top choice for a new business associate: Fidel Castro, the new Cuban leader who's trying to figure out how to make money off all the hotels and casinos left behind by fleeing mobsters.
Also on hand to complicate everything: a nascent army of Cuban exiles plotting to overthrow Castro. Their CIA helpers. A clean-up-Miami prosecutor corrupted by his own ambition. And a generous dollop of ethnic tension and sexual treachery.
"The first season was about a basically good man, Ike Evans, who having made this deal with the devil, was now trying to control the uncontrollable Ben Diamond," Glazer says. "It's like the oft-quoted saying, what does a man gain who has won the world and lost his soul?
"The second season is Ike realizing there is no way to coexist with Ben Diamond. People are dying around him, and he's in jail (on a murder charge brought by a corrupt prosecutor who is unknowingly framing a guilty man), and all because of this deal he's made. And now he's trying to get out of it, only to find that once you're in business with the Mob, you're partners for life, until they're done with you.
"The seriousness of Ike's position is shown by the fact that he's trying to put himself between Ben Diamond and Fidel Castro. That's not a choice most people would willingly make."
That seemingly unlikely scenario is more plausible than it sounds. This season of "Magic City" starts in spring 1959, when Castro had been in power only a few months and was still denying he was a Communist. He visited the United States, touring college campuses and appearing on television shows in search of political and economic support. "Magic City" even includes some old TV footage of Castro being interviewed on "Meet the Press," scoffing - in startlingly good English - at the idea he's a Marxist.
"I wish I could tell you that I performed some incredibly arcane feat of research, but the truth is that I found it on YouTube," Glazer says. "I knew he had done 'Meet the Press,' even seen some clips, but I didn't remember what year it was. Like, would the real-life date cooperate with the show's timeline? When I discovered that the dates match up perfectly - Castro was on 'Meet the Press' the Sunday before Passover in 1959, the same date we were going to use on the show - it seemed too good to be true. It was like a sign.
"There was this brief period of history, from New Year's Day 1959 to about October, when Fidel was open for business. He had inherited a country that was in turmoil and he was trying to resuscitate and revive the economy. And some Americans were interested. I even found an old Life magazine story about some entrepreneur who was getting into the business of harvesting bat guano out of Cuban caves. By the fall of 1959, Castro was pushed to - or moved to, depending on how you see it - (Soviet premier Nikita) Khrushchev, and then it was game over.
"But 'Meet the Press' is from that short little period before. Castro, we've all seen him thundering from the podium for five hours. But in this little clip, he's kind of quiet and sweet, he was really pitching himself: 'I don't like Communists, I like the American people.' It's a fascinating moment. You can sense his desperation."
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