NEW YORK - A high point in the series debut of "Magic City," the new Starz drama set in 1950s-era Miami Beach, occurs about midway when hotel magnate Ike Evans makes a reluctant appeal to his brutish silent partner for help with union workers.
It's New Year's Eve, ringing in 1959, and Ike is having problems. The hotel is booked solid and Frank Sinatra is headlining two sold-out shows. Now Ike needs assistance from Ben Diamond (aka "the Butcher") in persuading the union boss not to call a strike of hotel workers on this all-important night.
In the delicious scene, Ike pays Ben a visit at his palatial, palm-shrouded estate.
Ike (played by series star Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is in a crisp dark suit as the sun beats down. But Ben (co-star Danny Huston) reigns with Roman-esque excess in swim trunks, recumbent on his chaise lounge on a Lazy Susan platform which, with the press of a button, swivels to position him at the ideal tanning angle.
"Ike is so uncomfortable!" laughs Morgan during a recent conversation with Huston and the series' creator-writer-executive producer, Mitch Glazer. "I'm in the heat in a wool suit, and Ben is drinking a cocktail in his Speedo."
Huston chuckles at the moment when Ben loses his hair-trigger temper and smashes a carafe on the deck of the pool, with a ricocheting splinter of glass grazing Ike's cheek.
"Ohhhhhh," coos Ben, his voice resuming a sinister whisper as he offers Ike a towel to daub the blood: "You cut yourself."
He then sends Ike home. He tells him to relax. The union boss will be "persuaded."
"It's a great dynamic," grins Huston, who is as jovial in person as his character is chilling. "I'm the Meyer Lansky to Ike's Bugsy Siegel."
Premiering Friday, "Magic City" re-captures the bygone fast life of Miami Beach, fueled by the Rat Pack, the mob, the CIA and anti-Castro forces coalescing after Fidel Castro's rise to power in Cuba. (The first three hours are now available for viewing on the Starz website.)
The series was created - and all eight of this first season's episodes were written - by Glazer, who grew up in Miami Beach in that glamorous time and, as a teen, was a cabana boy at a Collins Avenue resort nearly as posh and grand as Ike's fictitious Miramar Playa.
Through the run of the series, Ike will face the challenges of keeping his luxury hotel afloat while preserving family harmony with his beautiful former showgirl wife (Olga Kurylenko), his two grown sons - one bad (Steven Strait), one righteous (Christian Cooke) - his precocious little girl (Taylor Blackwell), and the patrician sister of Ike's late first wife (played by Kelly Lynch, who, in real life, is wed to Glazer).
All that, plus the Faustian pact into which Ike has entered with co-owner Ben, whose dangerously gorgeous bride (Jessica Marais) presents her own special menace to Ike's family.
In public, Ike maintains a Sphinxian look of confidence and cool, but there is something about the heaviness of his bearing that suggests he carries the weight of the world, including a measure of conscience-strickenness, on his broad shoulders.
"Ike has to wear many different faces," says Glazer. "That ability to compartmentalize requires a really deft actor like Jeff who can be believable when he looks his wife in the eyes and says, `Ben Diamond is not my world,' and then goes and meets with Ben Diamond."
Morgan's many films include the recent "The Texas Killing Fields" as well as "Watchmen," "Taking Woodstock" and "The Accidental Husband," and he had a memorable recurring role on ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" as heart patient Denny Duquette.
Huston's diverse list of credits includes "The Aviator," "The Constant Gardener," "The Proposition" and the current "Wrath of the Titans," as well as the HBO miniseries "John Adams," in which he portrayed Samuel Adams.
"I loved the idea of Ben Diamond not being a leg breaker, a thug, but being more of a Roman emperor of crime," says Glazer when asked how the role was cast. "Who better than Danny?"
The production values and eye for period detail on "Magic City" are eye-popping: The vast lobby of the Miramar Playa is a visual treat, and the sunken Atlantis Lounge, whose portholes provide an underwater panorama of lovely in-the-buff sirens rapturously swimming in the adjacent pool, is wondrous. The series is filmed in Miami, and takes generous advantage of the area's real-life locations.
"I'm a big believer in shooting where the actual story takes place. It's so helpful," says Huston, then jokes, "I would never have gotten into those Speedos had it not been for the tremendous heat."
"I don't know if I necessarily believe you," cracks Morgan.
"There's an interesting dance between those two," says Glazer. "There's a moment in another scene where Ben is taking Ike to show him his hotel on the horizon. Danny-as-Ben took Jeff-as-Ike's hand, really gently. It was so gentle and terrifying, all at the same time."
Says Morgan, "I remember thinking, `What's he gonna do?'"
"It was the solution to a slight blocking problem," Huston says simply. "I extended my hand, and held HIS hand."
"And Jeff went right with it," says Glazer. "He just stood up and was led."
Morgan laughs. "As soon as they said `Cut' we said, `That was weird as hell - and great!'"
It isn't typical for the screenwriter to be on hand when his script goes before the cameras. But this is no ordinary project for Glazer. His writing credits include "Scrooged," "Great Expectations" and "The Recruit," and, with "Saturday Night Live" original Michael O'Donaghue, he co-wrote the 1979 cult classic "Mr. Mike's Mondo Video." But "Magic City" seems the project he was born to create.
"Having him on set, and being able to talk to him - who lived in Miami and witnessed the goings-on at that time - was incredibly helpful for the actors," Huston says.
"It was exhilarating for me," Glazer says. "This is my home. My life. That Lazy Susan that Ben sits on? I saw it! I sold doughnuts for UNICEF to this guy near where I lived, and he made me wait in the sun holding the stupid doughnuts while he came around on his Lazy Susan to face me.
"So then, at 13, I said to myself: `Someday I'm gonna use this!'"