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One recent afternoon, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, lead of the new Starz series “Magic City,” was in the back room of Gemma, the sidewalk restaurant of the Bowery Hotel, considering how exactly it was he came to be playing a man like Ike Evans.
“You know, in the show I play a guy who’s not real religious,” the 45-year-old actor says with a laugh. “Actually, his wife calls him the worst Jew in Miami. My return to that is: ‘No, my father is.’ So you’re looking at a [character] who wasn’t raised very Jewish. Mitch is Jewish, and for some reason he looked at me and he saw a kindred spirit and thought I could pull it off.”
Mitch would be Mitch Glazer, the magazine scribe turned Hollywood screenwriter, and creator, executive producer and writer of “Magic City,” which will begin its first season on April 6. A Miami Beach native, Glazer based the series on the city of his boyhood, a time of dinner jackets and cigars, union busters and New Year’s Eve Frank Sinatra concerts. Morgan’s Evans is the show’s lead, the proprietor of the fictional Miramar Playa Hotel, a stand-in for the Fontainebleau (where Glazer’s father worked as an electrical engineer) or Eden Roc, those Morris Lapidus-designed meccas of hospitality in the town’s boom years. Set in 1959, the first season follows the hotelier as he is besieged by issues of both the lowercase- and capital-F family variety. (Danny Huston puts in a delightfully sinister turn opposite Morgan as underworld boss Ben “The Butcher” Diamond.)
“He’s a family man who’s caught in the middle of kind of strenuous situations where he’s forced to make choices while not letting his family in on it,” Morgan says of his character. “He is a loving father and husband, I think, before anything, and yet you find him lying to his wife, his sons, and trying to keep the facade that everything’s OK.”
Offscreen, Morgan doesn’t seem quite as harried a dad as his alter ego. Between a portrait session and interview, he horses around with his 2-year-old son, Gus, who is promptly whisked away by his mother, the actress Hilarie Burton. The pair recently bought a cabin in upstate New York, and Morgan’s mother and stepfather were in tow while he made his media rounds ahead of the show’s debut.
Of course, park any prime-time drama within tail-fin distance of 1960-something at this particular juncture in television programming history, and the current season in particular, and there’s a certain shadow to contend with.
“Jon Hamm — I know him. I love him,” Morgan says with a grin at the mention of “Mad Men.” “I get asked about his character and mine a lot, and the show comparisons. Look, it takes place in the same era. We’ll have some skinny ties that are very similar. But other than that, New York and Miami Beach were two very different beasts.”
Like Hamm, Morgan is adult-portion handsome — with his bullish features, longish salt-and-pepper hair and scruffy beard, he looks a bit like an American answer to Javier Bardem — and has found later career success on the small screen. His big break came playing the terminal heart-transplant patient Denny Duquette on “Grey’s Anatomy” in the show’s mid-Aughts heyday, a period that also saw the actor gain notice for his work on “Weeds” and the WB cult favorite “Supernatural.” Morgan offers the sort of perspective that comes with a résumé that includes bit parts on “Walker, Texas Ranger” and “JAG.”
“I have a lot of respect for what I do, for this profession,” he says. “Frankly, it pisses me off seeing some of the antics the people in my profession pull, the lack of respect they show for what we do.…I’m pretty humbled by all of this, ’cause I also know it can go away. It can be gone like that. It’s just as easy for me to be building a fence somewhere and scraping by on unemployment in between doing a guest star spot. I’ve been there.”
Morgan doesn’t figure to be fedora-in-hand in the foreseeable future. Last week, Starz said that it picked the series up for a second season. The network’s largesse and premium cable positioning makes “Magic City” a bit different than Morgan’s previous TV work, more akin to his feature roles of late, playing tough guys in films like “Watchmen” and “Texas Killing Fields.” The show is cinematic in scope, design — Morgan spends almost every scene in almost too perfect suits — and, most entertainingly, subject matter.
“I think it’s important: the language of it all,” Morgan says. “And I don’t mean just saying ‘f--k.’ If you’re living in this world and s--t goes wrong, there might be some language. I always was irritated doing network television.…You’re in love, you make love. That happens. If someone gets shot in the face, it’s not going to be pretty. It’s really nice being able to not have boundaries in the world of television.”