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HBO doc poignantly profiles NYC writers Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill 

Pete Hamill, left, and Jimmy Breslin.

Pete Hamill, left, and Jimmy Breslin.   Credit: HBO / Brian Hamill

Ronnie Eldridge picks up the phone in her Upper West Side apartment on the second ring, then reflexively anticipates the caller's first question.

"The house," she says, laughing, "is very quiet."  

The former New York City councilwoman, currently host of CUNY TV's "Eldridge & Co." knows from quiet. In 1982, she married a world-famous columnist for the Daily News, later for Newsday, who — it seemed — had never once lapsed into silence over a distinguished if clamorous career. After they were married, Jimmy Breslin moved into her apartment, with his six children joining Eldridge and her three. (Breslin's first wife, Rosemary, died in 1981, Eldridge's husband, Lawrence, in 1970).

The kids have long since moved out. Breslin died of pneumonia on March 19, 2017, leaving Eldridge with memories of an association that began over half a century ago. They're all good memories, she says, and calls that marriage "thirty-five great years."  

Meanwhile, Japanese journalist and author Fukiko Aoki —   wife of veteran columnist Pete Hamill — says matter-of-factly in another phone interview, "I'm tired."

She works from the Prospect Heights apartment she and Hamill moved into a couple of years ago. In addition to caring for her ailing husband, she's been promoting the upcoming HBO film, "Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists," which premieres Monday at 8 p.m.

"I'm tired," she repeats. "That's the truth. Every day I can't think of the future, but tomorrow I will be OK."

Deadline artists, but also lions of New York journalism, Breslin and Hamill are silenced now and the city they covered with so much brio inevitably quieter, too. But their absence from the scene is most keenly felt by two people.

Aoki says Hamill, 83, is doing much better, after nearly dying five years ago. He's still on a walker and undergoes dialysis three times a week for kidney failure. She says he requires 24-hour care.

Eldridge, who just turned 88, says she's gone back to working on a book because "Jimmy always thought. everyone should write [one]." The problem, she says, is "no one wants to read about me."

Both Aoki and Eldridge appear in "Deadline Artists," along with some 45 other admirers, family members and celebrities like Spike Lee and Robert De Niro. Over several especially poignant scenes taped a few years ago, Hamill and Breslin are also together on-screen. 

Elegiac, often moving, "Deadline Artists" is a requiem for a pair of heavyweights as well as the type of print journalism they once practiced. It was produced by three veteran television journalists, Jonathan Alter, John Block and Steve McCarthy. Block, a former NBC News producer and native Chicagoan, came to New York in 1974 when he fell under Breslin's considerable spell.

In person, he found his onetime idol both "receptive" to the film and "agreeable. Any excuse to see Pete was a good day for Jimmy. Until the end, they had that kind of affection."

"Deadline Artists" tracks the paths of two opposite but equal forces, one of them a poet, the other a howitzer. "Deadline's" Hamill is melancholy, ruminative, nostalgic, its Breslin a propulsive champion of New Yorkers in need of one. (His 1986 Pulitzer cited columns  that "consistently champion ordinary citizens.")   

Its New York is bygone. "Once there was another city here and now it is gone," Hamill reads from a long-ago New York magazine article. "The lost city of New York."

In that lost city, there were once a dozen newspapers, then a handful. Both Queens-born Breslin and Brooklyn-born Hamill drifted among a few of them. Over half a century they covered both Kennedy assassinations, the Bernhard Goetz case and Son of Sam killings, the AIDS crisis, the Crown Heights and Central Park Jogger cases, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Their voices diverged, but their crusades were one. Hamill blasted those who leapt to judgment with the Central Park Five. Breslin rose up against Goetz and the NYPD. Their battles were lonely and ultimately vindicated.  

Breslin revolutionized the hardscrabble city column, Hamill perfected it, and together they created a type of literature. As "Deadline" suggests, Hamill also had a long view of their trade, or, as he puts it, "journalism is tomorrow's history." Nevertheless, journalism — in the parlance of their era — was also fishwrap by the end of the day. The way they practiced it is now largely extinct, while their New York — a fractured city of racial divisions with a Bronx-is-burning national profile — is a relic too.

It's hard to imagine how these two might function in today's world of new media, with its influencers, social media barons and politicized cable networks. Wisely, "Deadline Artists" doesn't try.

"Patrick Kavanagh, an Irish poet of the mid-20th century, had a saying that the standing army of Irish poetsnever falls below 20,000, and at one point you could have said the same for Irish American columnists," said Jim Dwyer, a Pulitzer Prize winner for New York Newsday, now a writer for The New York Times, in a phone interview. "Their ranks have clearly dwindled and I think there's very little appetite or platform for the specific kind of city column that those guys did."

What they did, however, was vitally important. "New York was very broken, and Hamill was the clarion voice that said do not mistake the wreckage for the people. He was standing up for a place that was under siege."

In a phone interview, Aoki says "it was a good part of New York history that we had such great journalists and it's remarkable we're losing that kind of journalism. It's so sad. Will there be others? I hope, I hope, but it's very hard."

Meanwhile, Eldridge, too, keeps "trying to imagine what [Breslin] would be doing today."

"He could never get the computer. Can you imagine Jimmy on social media? He didn't even understand email."

Eldridge also wants to believe that her husband — who raged at presidents and impostors for  60 years — would remain an optimist.  

"He would have to be," she says. "He always thought things would get better. But now I don't really know. I can't figure that out."

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