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Memories vivid of threats that forced 'Scarface' from Miami

Twenty-five years ago this week, production began in Miami on the archetypal Florida movie: Scarface, starring Al Pacino as cocaine kingpin Tony Montana. • Cameras didn't roll long there. Protests and rumored threats from the city's Cuban-American community chased the production to California after only three weeks. • Only a handful of scenes were filmed in Miami in April 1983, including Montana's execution of an enemy on Ocean Drive. Some of that work is captured in these photographs, never before published, by then-amateur photographer Bill Cooke. • They are candid artifacts of a crime classic that Florida's film industry let slip away.

Scarface had everything that made Miami uneasy in the 1980s: burgeoning Cuban-American pride, guns, intimidation, tough guys and Miami's vice.

And that was months before cameras started rolling.

"I've never really talked about this before," said Scarface producer Martin Bregman, 82, in a telephone interview from his New York offices. "But we had to get out of (Miami) because someone was going to get hurt."

Like the movie, Bregman's trouble began with the Mariel boat lift that brought nearly a quarter-million Cuban refugees to American shores. Some immigrants were like Pacino's Tony Montana character, criminals released from prisons by Cuban President Fidel Castro and dumped into the American melting pot.

Bregman, director Brian De Palma and screenwriter Oliver Stone envisioned that scenario as a starting point to update 1932's Scarface: Montana survives an immigration detention camp and prospers as Miami's premier coke dealer, leaving a bloody swath on the city's art-deco scene.

The plot outline leaked in 1982, angering much of Miami's Cuban-American community built by refugees, including city Commissioner Demetrio Perez Jr. Six months before filming began, Perez introduced a resolution — later voted down — to deny the use of city facilities to any production that might portray Cuban-Americans in unfavorable ways.

That was the public face of Cuban-Americans' disapproval of Scarface.

Bregman already knew about the private side.

Firsthand information

"The problem started when I had some Cuban expatriates, I guess, that called me and wanted to meet with me (in 1982)," Bregman said. "They were from Union City, N.J., right across the river.

"They told me that it would be very unsafe for me, my family and everybody involved in this enterprise to make this film. They said they were aware — and they used the word 'aware' — that Castro was financing this film to embarrass the good Cuban community."

Bregman called that claim "pure, absolute stupidity."

Those Union City emissaries also expressed displeasure with associating Cuban-Americans with drug trafficking, according to Bregman.

"They said over and over: 'There's no Cuban drug people. No Cubans are involved with that,' " Bregman said.

"Now, I had just gotten back from Miami with Oliver Stone and we spoke with nothing but Cubans and they were all in the drug business. Not all Cubans, but the people we talked to, the big guys in the drug trade."

Similar Cuban-American protests from Miami were conveyed to Bregman by federal narcotics agent and future Broward County sheriff Nick Navarro, who later arranged 24-hour protection for key Scarface personnel. Universal Pictures president Lew Wasserman urged Bregman to forget filming in Miami. But the producer wouldn't give in.

Real concern

Three weeks after filming began, Wasserman called Bregman with an executive decision.

"He said: 'I'm pulling the plug. Come back to L.A. I don't want to see anyone get hurt,' " Bregman said. "Lew grew up in a tough neighborhood, so if it spooked him, it was real.

"I'm sorry that we weren't permitted to shoot the whole film in Miami. It's so stupid, because more and more money would've been spent there, and a lot of local residents who needed jobs would have been hired.

"But that's no way to get up in the morning, with a policeman sitting by your bed with an Uzi."

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog at blogs.tampabay.com.

Memories vivid of threats that forced 'Scarface' from Miami 04/13/08 [Last modified: Sunday, April 13, 2008 4:30am]
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