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Magic City: So good at being bad with James Caan, Rick Ross

Ben “the Butcher” Diamond, one of the most terrifying figures on primetime television, is about to get smacked around by an even more menacing force. This can’t end well.

Yes, the second season of Miami Beach native Mitch Glazer’s stylishly cinematic Starz network period drama, “Magic City,” set and filmed in South Florida, is ready to make you sweat.

The critically lauded series, a precisely rendered depiction of late-1950s Miami Beach glamour that looks as if it sprang from the pages of old Playboy magazines, can, of course, be counted on for steamy sex and kink. The politics of the era, with Castro seizing power in Havana, are also a hothouse of intrigue.

But what gives “Magic City” its tension and substance, what it does better than any other show on television, and better than many movies, is perfectly calibrated, cold-blooded menace.

“The stakes are higher, more desperate,” Glazer says of Season 2, which premieres at 9 p.m. Friday. “There’s a body count, literally and emotionally.”

In the soapy whirl of Jewish gangsters, entertainers, call girls, police and politicians at the fictional Miramar Playa hotel, where owner Ike Evans (series star Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and mobster partner Ben Diamond are locked in a Faustian battle for control, bad things are always about to happen to good people. Bad people, too. And nobody is better at bad than Danny Huston, a Golden Globe nominee for his cold-blooded portrayal of the Butcher.

Until now.

Season 2 of “Magic City” will be distinguished by the appearance of James Caan, the one-time Sonny Corleone of “The Godfather,” as Sy Berman, Ben Diamond’s boss from Chicago. Sy knows how to get things done.

“I’m pretty much Meyer Lansky. They are bringing me in to crack some f---ing heads, “ Caan recalled with a laugh in an interview during the Season 2 filming last fall. “Ben — Danny Huston — is having trouble with his wife, with his business. I come in to straighten things out.”

Caan said he was encouraged to take the role due to a longtime friendship with Glazer, but there was something else.

“It’s quality,” he said of the script, which puts him in half of the eight Season 2 episodes. “I’m sure I wasn’t in their budget.”

Creating a character that would be plausible in standing up to a “sociopath” such as Ben Diamond takes a certain kind of actor, Glazer says.

“I’ve known Jimmy Caan for a while. I know how powerful he is. There was no way Sy Berman was going to be anything but terrifying,” Glazer says. But even the seasoned Glazer was “knocked back on my heels” watching Caan apply intuitive tweaks to make Sy flesh and blood.

“He’s a very surprising and spontaneous actor,” says Glazer, recalling one scene in particular between Caan and Huston. “He does the script as written, but he adds this physicality. He’s jabbing his finger into Ben’s chest, or he’s grabbing him by his wrists. It was jarring to see, but it was fantastic.”

On a show that has a knack for casting — supporting players include Olga Kurylenko (star of Terrence Malick’s latest film, “To the Wonder”), Tony Award nominee Yul Vazquez and former “Sopranos” tough guy Michael Rispoli, as well as Glazer’s wife, Kelly Lynch — Oscar-nominee Caan is its most high-profile actor yet. But perhaps not for long.

Glazer confirms that he has a “great part” written for a longtime friend, Bill Murray, the versatile Oscar nominee who starred in Glazer’s holiday movie “Scrooged.” (Glazer also did some rewriting on the script for “Charlie’s Angels” at Murray’s request.)

Glazer is reluctant to reveal details, saying the character’s place in the historical story arc of “Magic City” is in the distance. And sometimes, competing interests and projects intervene.

“Have we talked about it? Yes. Is there interest on both sides to do something? Yes,” Glazer says. “Over my life, he has been incredibly supportive and excited by some of these notions. It would be my dream. Talk about a surprising actor!”

Another unanticipated casting coup came in the large form of Carol City rapper Rick Ross, who appears as Butterball, the uncompromising numbers-runner at a Liberty City bolita (a Cuban gambling den), who joins forces with Ben Diamond.

A chart-topping rapper from his first album, 2006’s “Port of Miami,” to 2012’s “God Forgives, I Don't,” Ross is a big fan of “Magic City.” He took DVDs of Season 1 on tour with him, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the careers of old-time mobsters such as Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, Glazer says.

When Ross’ people called the set to inquire about a visit, former Rolling Stone magazine writer Glazer’s response was immediate: Who’s Rick Ross?

“When he called, there was an [excited] explosion in the office, but as a function of my age — I’m friends with guys in the Eagles, OK? — I didn’t know anything about Rick Ross,” Glazer says with a laugh. “But I got up to speed.”

Once he laid eyes on Ross, Glazer knew he had to find a way to write him into the show. Ross, he says, was a total professional. No entourage. No attitude.

“He was wonderful,” Glazer says. “You could see the charisma of the guy. He’s certainly a great-looking character.”

South Florida’s source of traditional acting talent has been a godsend for “Magic City,” Glazer says.

Local stage actor Avi Hoffman was “amazing” in Season 1, and his role has grown “immensely,” Glazer says. Other “great finds” cited by Glazer are Todd Allen Durkin as an assistant district attorney (“He’s a fantastic, wonderful actor”) and Karen-Eileen Gordon as Ike’s secretary (She’s incredible,” Glazer says).

Other more-famous new faces in Season 2 include Esai Morales, as imposing anti-Castro organizer Carlos “El Tiburon” Ruiz, and Sherilyn Fenn, as a strip-club proprietor with ties to the Butcher.

When: 9 p.m. Friday
Where: Starz
Stars: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Danny Huston, Olga Kurylenko, James Caan, Yul Vazquez, Rick Ross

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