“Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists” set to premiere on HBO chronicling the amazing lives of their careers, from the 1960s into the 21st century.
“Once there was another city here, now it is gone—the Lost City of New York.”
In the New York of my youth, circa 1967 B.I. (Before Internet), it was the habit to pick up the New York Post on the way home from school or work and go out at 8 p.m. to fetch the New York Daily News when it hit the street. The usual gore was on the front page and the sports page wasn’t much better with terrible Mets and Yankees teams. But the thing you’d attack first would be the columnists, Hamill in the Post and Breslin in the News. A couple of Irish guys serving their city.
On Monday, January 28th at 8 p.m EST, HBO will premiere "Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists", a documentary that explores the careers of two of New York’s greatest newspaper columnists, whose careers stretched from the 1960s into the 21st century.
The documentary covers all the traumatic events felt by the citizens of New York: the assassinations of JFK and Robert Kennedy, the Vietnam War, Son of Sam, the Bernie Goetz shooting, the Central Park jogger case, the AIDS epidemic, all the way up to 9/11.
Breslin, who died in 2017, and Hamill star as themselves with an all-star supporting cast including Tom Wolfe, Guy Talese, Gail Collins, Gloria Steinem, Spike Lee, Colin Quinn, Robert De Niro, Shirley MacLaine, Andrew Cuomo, Shane Smith, James Duff, Earl Caldwell, Richard Esposito, Mike Lupica, Sam Roberts, Charlie Carillo, Robert Krulwich, and Garry Trudeau. It was directed and produced by Jonathan Alter, John Block, and Steve McCarthy.
Steve McCarthy fills us in
IrishCentral caught up with Steve McCarthy to speak about the documentary. Like Breslin and Hamill, McCarthy has outer-borough New York blood running through his veins.
“I was born and raised in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn,” he said. “My dad was the NYPD beat cop at the corner of 69th Street and Third Avenue. I graduated from SUNY Oswego and started working as a gofer at CBS News. I gradually rose through the ranks—went to NBC News for a few years and then returned to CBS News as a producer for 60 Minutes in the ’90s. I began to make films after 9/11—my first was Finding Paddy about the life of FDNY Capt. Patrick Brown who died in the north tower. Other films followed and now I teach journalism and filmmaking at Montclair State University and continue to make documentaries.”
The documentary couldn’t have been made without the Montclair Connection, because McCarthy, Alter, and Block are ensconced there. “We all live in Montclair, NJ,” said McCarthy, “and have been friends for many years. John Block and I worked as producers at NBC Dateline. Jonathan Alter and I produced stories for the Today Show—mostly about veterans returning from Iraq. John Block and I recently produced a PBS film called The One That Got Away.”
There was also one more crucial Montclair connection in the making of the film. “Jimmy Breslin’s stepdaughter, Emily Eldridge, lives in Montclair. We all had experiences with Jimmy Breslin and we asked her how Jimmy was doing and if she thought he would be interested in a doc. We then added Pete to the film because we felt it would allow us to focus on journalism—a particular type of journalism that no longer exists.”
How did they get Breslin and Hamill to go along? Particularly the famously prickly Breslin? “I believe they both saw the documentary as an important work to discuss journalism and their role in the field. By the time we got to Jimmy, he was not quite the tiger he had been in earlier years. He had mellowed and was usually very pleasant to deal with.”
One of the central themes to the documentary is the subject of race, both in New York and America in general. “Jimmy said it best in one of his many interviews—‘It’s always about race.’ Both of these writers saw the drama and conflict this nation has gone through with respect to race. This is particularly acute in New York City—the gateway for immigrants into the U.S. They also used the Irish immigrant background and experience as the backdrop for their reporting on race. We all came from somewhere and our forefathers left because of the promise of this country.”
It’s all about Jimmy
As someone who has had dealings with Breslin over the years, I have dealt with the infamous Breslin bombastic personality. He was a contradiction in terms. He loved the underdog but could treat people horribly (the documentary explores the truly senseless and inexplicable ad hominem attack he laid on an Asian woman who worked as a reporter for Newsday in 1990). I asked McCarthy, short of turning into a psychiatrist, if he had any idea why Breslin was Breslin?
“Jimmy wore a mask,” replied McCarthy, “what we saw was not always who the real Jimmy was. Did it have to do with his childhood—probably? Was he insecure? Yes, like many very talented people. Did he snarl at people? —indeed he did. But I believe he had, as many tough guys do, a soft heart. At his funeral, a young African-American man spoke about how Jimmy paid for his college tuition because his parents had died. I was amazed that we had not heard that story before. I think he did many things simply because they were the right thing to do and did not always boast about them.”
The contrast between Breslin and Hamill could not be illustrated more than their relationships to their mothers. Hamill loved his mother, who would not tolerate bigotry, but Breslin’s mother (and family) are brutally rendered by Breslin: “Large cold Irish family”; he admits he never kissed his mother; and the damnest comment of all: “I was a stranger out of her.”
I asked McCarthy how did he ever get Breslin to confess to all this stuff? “One of the things that all three of us do very well is get people comfortable to share important things. It’s part of the craft and involves spending the time, doing the homework and listening. We also develop trust with the people are interviewing. It’s part art and part science.”
Hamill the Mensch
In contrast to Breslin you have Hamill, a mensch of a man, as they say at the corner saloon. Like many of the people they wrote about, both Breslin and Hamill came out of poverty, but Hamill was not tainted by it. His brother Denis perhaps put it best, “Poverty was not a sin.” Pete is honest in his progress as a man. His relationship with Robert Kennedy was remarkable and, in a way, tragic because he sent him a letter that convinced Kennedy to run for President. He was there when RFK was murdered and said he made a “terrible mistake as a journalist.”
“Pete’s a complicated man as well,” said McCarthy. “His stories about stickball and bars in Park Slope reminded me of my own childhood in Bay Ridge. We weren’t wealthy but had food to eat and clean clothes. And, our parents valued education. Pete’s relationship with RFK had a major conflict in it. He, like many progressive Irish-Americans, fell in love with the Kennedys. They saw that this dynasty proved the Irish made it in America. They also saw how they didn’t forget where they came from. Instead of kicking the next guy coming up the ladder they extended a hand to help bring them up. The fact that both Pete and Jimmy were right there when RFK was shot is amazing. It makes for one of the most interesting parts of the film.”
McCarthy and his partners dared to go where many fear to tread—Pete Hamill’s famous love life. He had dalliances with Jacqueline Onassis and Shirley MacLaine. (For the record, I once saw Pete in the Lion’s Head one night with Mary Tyler Moore—not bad for a kid from Park Slope, Brooklyn!) So, how did McCarthy do it?
“As talented and handsome as Pete is, he is also modest. He did not boast about the glamorous women he went out with. He actually didn’t tell us much. When we asked him if he loved Jackie Onassis he replied: ‘I’d really agree with Garcia Marquez who said once, that everybody’s got three lives—a public life, a private life, and a secret life. Private life is by invitation only. A secret life is nobody’s business.’ ”
John F. Kennedy famously said that “there are three things in life: God, human folly, and laughter. The first two are beyond our comprehension so we must make the best of the third.” If you want some laughs, you’ve come to the right place in Breslin and Hamill.
One of the highlights of the film is Breslin commenting on the love life of Hamill in a column, no less. “One of the funniest parts of the film,” says McCarthy, “was when Jimmy wrote a column about Pete going out with Jackie O and Shirley MacLaine at the same time. Shirley hit the roof, Jackie O laughed, and Pete was pissed off. He called Jimmy about it and Jimmy said, “I needed it” —meaning he needed something for a column that day.”
There’s a lot of humor in this documentary. My favorite parts were when Breslin said that the Son of Sam wrote so well he thought “Hamill wrote it!” and Abe Hirschfeld kissing Hamill when he rehired him as Editor at the New York Post. Did McCarthy have any favorite parts?
“Besides the aforementioned Breslin column on Pete’s love life,” said McCarthy, “I’d have to say the Jimmy on the phone section is the funniest part. While filming some of these stories I almost burst out laughing behind the camera. Nick Pileggi, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Jonathan Alter all recounted very funny stories about Jimmy on the phone. Another funny moment is when the Latina cop who lost her job for posing nude thanks Jimmy for writing about her and he says ‘Aw shut up! God Bless ya,’ and walks away.”
The gunslinger versus the poet
With words, Breslin was a gunslinger, Hamill is the poet laureate of the brick and mortar that makes New York, well, New York. It is this contrast in style that makes them such interesting characters, bouncing off each other in this documentary.
“This,” said McCarthy, “I believe, is one of the strengths of the movie. As Colin Quinn said, ‘they're both these Irish bar columnists, and they both are so similar and so different at the same time.’ Jimmy was hot, Pete cool. Jimmy was a married man almost his whole life, Pete was more of a man who played the field. (He did settle down to a long marriage to his beloved Fukiko.) Their styles of writing and reporting were quite different. Jimmy focused more on the individual’s struggle, Pete constructed a much bigger picture, but both based their writing on reporting. Both stuck up for the little guy. Both celebrated the differences of our citizens.”
Breslin and Hamill also have something to say about the Irish. Breslin, via Dan Barry of the New York Times, called the Irish “shopping center faces,” while Hamill has a much kinder opinion of his countrymen although both his parents escaped from Belfast pogroms of the 1920s. I asked McCarthy, as an Irishman, how he viewed both Breslin’s and Hamill’s opinion of the Irish?
“I grew up reading both of them. And they were not popular in my house. My father was a police officer and Jimmy, in particular, was not always kind to cops. My family was and to some extent still is more conservative than Jimmy and Pete. What I learned from them is it may not be easy to go against your tribe, but you need to follow the facts and your heart. There were signs saying ‘Irish Need Not Apply’ as we show in the movie. We cannot forget that our family members were kicked down instead of being helped up. Irish-Catholics took care of themselves by creating a school system (I attended 12 years of Catholic school) and gaining political strength to end bigotry toward the Irish. I believe, as Catholics, it’s our job to help end bigotry against new groups coming in. Pete and Jimmy stood for that and it’s a lesson for all of us.”
“You’re not put on this earth to be happy”
The most devastating thing Breslin said in the whole documentary was at the end when he commented that “You’re not put on this earth to be happy.” That put a chill on the documentary.
“Jimmy was referring,” said McCarthy, “to the fact that he lost three women in his life—his first wife and both his daughters. I cannot imagine going through that. I believe it would make anyone say that. At the same time, it’s very Irish. It’s probably based on hundreds of years of oppression. The Famine was our own genocide. The discrimination our ancestors faced was real. There’s a darkness in our blood and maybe it causes us to tell stories that are sometimes very sad. I know it’s affected me, and often the stories I work on.
So, Stephen McCarthy, was it worth it?
“This experience was a dream come true for me. It was, to quote Hemingway, a moveable feast. We got to meet many of our journalistic idols like Tom Wolfe. Nick Pileggi, Gay Talese, Gloria Steinem and other important New Yorkers including Spike Lee, Robert DeNiro, Colin Quinn, and others. This film will be used for a teaching tool for many years to come. I’ve already shared parts of it and the details of production with journalism students at Montclair State University.
"There are lessons here and hopefully, it will inspire young people in our profession. It was also important to me because all of my four children worked on the film as my crew. Ryan, Justin, Alison, and Madeline ran the cameras, set the lights, did the audio and helped in post-production. It was great for them to meet all of these important folks, especially Pete and Jimmy. It was an experience we will never forget.”
* Dermot McEvoy is the author of the The 13th Apostle: A Novel of Michael Collins and the Irish Uprising and Our Lady of Greenwich Village, both now available in paperback, Kindle and Audio from Skyhorse Publishing. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.dermotmcevoy.com. Follow The 13th Apostle on Facebook.