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HBO documentary 'Breslin and Hamill' celebrates New York City's tabloid heyday

Legendary city scribes are examined in the new HBO film. 

Pete Hamill, left, and Jimmy Breslin as seen

Pete Hamill, left, and Jimmy Breslin as seen in the new documentary "Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists." Photo Credit: Brian Hamill / Courtesy of HBO

When the city was at its worst, they were at their best.

Legendary journalists Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill were dedicated to telling the stories of the downtrodden and questioning the powerful during some of the most turbulent times in New York City.

A new documentary "Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists," examines their impact at a time when newspapers loomed large and columnists boasted a devoted following.

The directors had access to a treasure trove of archival footage and celebrity-studded interviews to help viewers follow Breslin and Hamill’s careers and the stories that kept them occupied for more than four decades.

The film, which premieres Monday on HBO, feels almost bittersweet against the current backdrop of layoffs and shrinking coverage of local news.

But Jonathan Alter said he and fellow directors Steve McCarthy and John Block did not set out to create a nostalgia trip for people who miss the old gritty city and its hometown literary lions.

“When you see how they took on Donald Trump 30 years ago, or how they stood up and spoke truth to power about the Bernard Goetz case, you realize this is what journalists are supposed to do,” said Alter, a veteran journalist, author and historian.

The two were also friends, colleagues and competitors, whose work graced the pages of the New York Daily News, the New York Post, the then-New York Newsday and the long-defunct New York Herald Tribune. Both were prolific novelists as well.

They shared Irish-Catholic, outer borough roots. Breslin, who passed away in 2017, hailed from Queens, while Hamill was a Brooklyn boy. Their public styles, however, were another thing.

The cigar-chomping Breslin was brash, outspoken and, as the film shows, often hilarious, as he searched for the truth up and down the city’s streets.

Hamill was a soft-spoken, dashing poet of the working class and poor, who squired former first lady Jackie O and actress Shirley MacLaine.  

Neither feared being the lone voice of dissent when the city embraced Goetz, the subway vigilante, or Trump, then a real estate mogul, who called for a return of the death penalty in a controversial ad campaign after a jogger was raped in Central Park in 1989.

And they prided themselves on championing every day New Yorkers.

“We don’t see too many writers, artists or politicians anymore who are both immersed in liberal values and have a keen understanding and sympathy for blue collar workers,” said Paul Moses, a former Newsday editor and retired professor of journalism at Brooklyn College. “This is populism in the best sense of the word — a respect for the dignity of poor and working-class people, whether for marginalized minorities such as African Americans, Latinos and immigrants, or white blue-collar workers. Everyone has a story to tell, not just the elite."

Alter said he has been especially happy to see that the film resonates with young people, who are unfamiliar with Breslin and Hamill.

“They are curious about the old, colorful, pre-Disney side of New York,” said Alter. “The idea is kind of mind-blowing to them that a print journalist (Breslin) was the host of 'Saturday Night Live' or dating (Hamill) the most famous woman in the world.”

Along with the successes came crushing tragedy. Breslin lost three of the most important women in his life: his first wife, Rosemary, died in 1981, and daughters, Rosemary and Kelly, years later. In the film, Hamill notes how his drinking impacted his children and stole swaths of his memory.

Alter said the reporters' importance and stories are as relevant now as they ever were. 

“These two guys spoke truth to power, and even though local journalism is in crisis right now, they inspire us to do what we are put on earth to do,” Alter said. “Hold people accountable, tell stories colorfully with a lot of voice and fulfill our obligations in a democratic society.”

On TV: 'Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists' airs Monday at 8 p.m. on HBO.

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