By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
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By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Editor's note: To protect living members of Max Mermelstein's family, his alias and certain names have been changed.
Aspiring filmmaker Brett Tabor tops a medium popcorn with jalapeños, as is his custom, and sits down in the air-conditioned darkness in a Delray Beach movie house to watch a 7 o'clock showing in November 2006 of Cocaine Cowboys.
On the screen, superspliced interviews with two former smugglers tell the story of the cocaine avalanche that in the 1980s turned South Florida into a bullet-riddled Little Medellin. Using budget special effects to augment footage of drug busts and murder scenes, Cocaine Cowboys isn't your typical PBS-style documentary.
Thirty minutes into the hyperkinetic film, the former actor fidgets in his seat and considers walking out. But one character, a central figure whose story doesn't get much screen time, keeps Tabor watching.
Only one photo of the man appears onscreen. He's burly and pasty, with severely parted hair and long sideburns framing a moon-shaped face behind a handlebar mustache. He wears a stiff brown leather jacket and shoots daggers at the photographer, who snapped the photo sometime in the early 1980s.
Other than that, Max Mermelstein, the Jewish smuggler who pioneered the cocaine pipeline from Medellin to South Florida, is nowhere in the film. No silent B footage, no interviews, just that one picture of America's greatest cocaine king.
It wasn't for a lack of trying that the filmmakers had no footage of Max — as he was singularly known to federal agents and coke kingpins alike. After turning rat and bringing it all to a crashing halt, Max had disappeared. In 1986, he had fled the cartel's $3 million bounty into the Witness Protection Program.
"I had one thought in my head as I left the theater," Tabor recalls. "Who's this Max guy?"
The two years Tabor spent in Hollywood shaped him more than he would like to admit. He refers to film-industry superstars using only their first names, compares pivotal moments in his life to scenes in classic movies, and can't help but brag about the time he shared a Thanksgiving table with Al (Pacino) — which he swung because his wife, Andrea, was once assistant to Harvey (Keitel).
In 1997, the 24-year-old Kendall native, blessed with dark-eyed puppy-dog good looks, moved from South Florida to California to try to make it as an actor. He lived in a garage outside a house full of aspiring actors and scored less-than-Brandoesque roles: He played a "young officer" in a B movie called Judas Kiss and the doomed title character in the schlockfest See Dick Die.
Tabor still gets emotional when he recalls his career's epic bad beat: He received three callbacks for the main role in a biopic of boxer Vinnie Curto, alongside Robert De Niro as trainer Angelo Dundee. But then Mark Wahlberg, at that time known primarily as a rapper and Calvin Klein model, showed up for the audition. Tabor maintains he was KO'd by star power: "I never had a chance."
Out on My Feet, as the project was titled, was never made, but that wouldn't soothe Tabor. In 1999, soon after losing the role, he headed to New York City, where he landed some off-Broadway work and took acting lessons under renowned acting coach Susan Batson. Tabor shared a class with Keitel and eventually married the star's assistant, Madrid-born Andrea. They had two daughters together.
The struggling-actor lifestyle lost its romanticism as Tabor plowed through his early 30s with new mouths to feed. So in 2004, when his father, prominent Vero Beach developer Marty Tabor, asked him to come manage his property business, Tabor grudgingly agreed. He moved his family into a staid gated community in the moneyed town a couple of hours north of Fort Lauderdale but kept his eye trained on Hollywood. He still wanted to storm that insidery fiefdom, but now on the production side of things, using some too-good-to-deny film project as his battering ram. "The movie business is a club," he says. "It doesn't matter how you break in. Once you're in, you're in."
To Tabor, the glancing treatment of Cocaine Cowboys' most intriguing character offered just such an opportunity. He ordered a copy of The Man Who Made It Snow, Max's out-of-print memoir written with authors Richard Smitten and Robin Moore five years after Mermelstein entered the Witness Protection Program, and was thoroughly convinced of its cinematic potential. He had heard of only one other story involving an ethnic outsider bringing down a criminal organization from within. It had become a gangster classic. "This was my Goodfellas," Tabor says.
It's also, depending on when you ask him, his Rocky and his Good Will Hunting. Both were vehicles that made their writers into famous actors. Tabor arranged to pay $9,000 for the rights to The Man Who Made It Snow. All he had to do now was find Max.
His father, Marty, thought the proposition was flat-out foolish. "Found Hoffa yet?" he'd jab when Tabor reported to their office, or "It's called the Witness Protection Program for a reason, son."
But for Tabor, locating the ex-smuggler was becoming more necessity than dream. Even worse, 2008 was not a good year to be a developer in Vero Beach, a onetime speculator's playground now pocked with foreclosures and stalled constructions. Tabor had come home only to lose his shirt — and could soon lose his family's condo, he says.