Breslin and Hamill: Princes of the City

Photo courtesy of HBO

By Jon Friedman

During the second half of the 20th century, no reporters dominated New York City’s lively tabloid scene quite like Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill. Often disrespectful, occasionally blasphemous and forever unapologetic, they wrote with an undeniable swagger — from their hearts, and, in the process, they captured ours. They were the princes of the city.

Noo Yawkers of a certain age and sensibility will find it impossible to watch the HBO documentary “Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists,” which premieres on Jan. 28 at 8 p.m. (Eastern), without smiling.

Yes, the stories that they covered — a plethora of crooked politicians, the Mafia, JFK’s assassination, and then his brother Bobby Kennedy’s, President Richard Nixon’s infamous Enemies List, Son of Sam, subway vigilante Bernhardt Goetz, the Crown Heights race tensions, the Central Park Five and 9/11, among them — were deadly serious. Breslin and Hamill treated these subjects with the gravity that they deserved.

But most of the time, these two-of-a-kind city-bred Irishmen — Breslin of Queens and Hamill of Brooklyn — preferred to wink and smirk at the absurdity of life in their “little town” (with apologies to Paul Simon). No wonder Breslin once ran for City Council president on a ticket with mayoral aspirant Norman Mailer, their Jewish brother in arms. They called for New York City to be the nation’s 51st state. (Of course they did.)

The nearly two-hour HBO documentary is clearly a labor of love for the producers, Jonathan Alter, John Block and Steve McCarthy. They struck a respectful tone but this is not an exercise in nostalgia or hagiography. The film details the sorry episode of Breslin berating a colleague of Korean descent (he later apologized for his invective) and doesn’t shrink from discussing Hamill’s stormy tenures as the editor of both The New York Post and The New York Daily News.

For sure, Hamill, 83, has led a glittering life — and not merely because he squired Jackie Onassis, Shirley MacLaine and Linda Ronstadt (take that Jerry Brown!). But Breslin appears here as the biggest star and Hamill seems like the Robin to Breslin’s Batman, the dignified Lou Gehrig to Breslin’s bigger-than-life Babe Ruth and the reserved Henry Hill to Breslin’s outrageous Tommy D (a Goodfellas reference seems apt since its co-writer, Nicholas Pileggi, is quoted in the documentary, along with a host of commentators, from Spike Lee to Robert De Niro).

Breslin, who died of pneumonia at the age of 88 in 2017, was the kind of quintessential New Yorker that he loved to write about: a streetwise poet, a quote machine, someone who had no time or patience for conformity, the establishment or bullies of any stripe: “I wasn’t a (high school) dropout! I went the full five years”; “I learned early that bad news was great”; “The loser was always the better story.” “Journalist,” he scoffed, was “a college word.” Breslin forever identified himself as a reporter.

When a police officer, whose cause Breslin championed after she had been kicked off the force for posing nude in a magazine, profusely thanked him, he dismissed her: “Oh, shut up! God bless you.”

(I once asked Breslin a ridiculous question, something like if he ever wrote for the sheer enjoyment of the practice. He shot me a withering look and muttered, “I wouldn’t write a %&#$&* postcard if I wasn’t getting paid for it.”)

And yet, Breslin was so much more than an ink-stained wretch. He could easily have written a distinctly New York version of Joseph Heller’s brilliant “Catch-22” or a Breslinesque account of Tom Wolfe’s masterpiece, “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” Consider Breslin’s books, “Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?” (about the first season of the New York Mets, when the team lost an eye-popping 120 games) and “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” a novel about the characters who made up the Mafia, and one of the funniest novels that I’ve ever read.

My favorite moments of the documentary were the sessions when Breslin and Hamill, dear friends and respectful rivals, sat side by side and talked — no, they riffed. They were funny, wise and you couldn’t help but feel the poignancy. But more than all of that, they made me think of a New York City that is memorable, evocative, cherished and gone for good.

It was a time when journalists could be heroes, not only talking heads on cable news shows. The best of them talked in italics. They spoke in anecdotes, not sentences. They made us angry because they put a bright light on injustice of all kinds. They made us smile at the foolishness of politicians, who were anything but public servants, or the legions of publicity hounds who’d just about get on all fours and bark like a beagle for the media’s attention. Most of all, Breslin and Hamill, true deadline artists, made us think.