Jimmy Breslin: the same fight, new arenas
JIMMY BRESLIN is running late. Nine-thirty on a Sunday morning; reporters stacked up like the incoming at LaGuardia, and Mr. Breslin is running late. Mr. Breslin will only be granting 20-minute interviews, the press reps say. Mr. Breslin is very much in demand. Uh, just which Breslin is this? Jimmy Breslin the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, the journalistic thorn in the side of New York City, the mud-slinging kingmaker and -breaker? Or is this Jimmy Breslin the sometime TV personality, the creator-host of his own talk show, ``Jimmy Breslin's People,'' who, in a man-bites-dog move, fired his network, ABC. Or is this Jimmy Breslin the novelist; the fiction writer with six books to his credit, including the fable he just published this year, ``He Got Hungry and Forgot His Manners.''
No, no, no. Nahhhhhhhhh, if you want Breslin's Queens borough dialect. None of the above.
This is Breslin - the man of a thousand occupations - the playwright. And this is the Louisville Theatre Festival, the country's premier cultural showcase for new plays, where Breslin, nascent dramatist, headlined this year's festivities with his play, ``The Queen of the Leaky Roof Circuit.''
Oh, that Breslin.
As in that short, beefy-as-a-truck wild Irish rose coming through the door, a look of contrition on his little boy mug, who clasps the reporter on the back of her neck, shakes her like a puppy in his hamfisted grip, muttering, ``Jeez, I'm sorry I'm late.''
Hey, that's OK, Mr. Breslin. Can I have my neck back now?
This is, after all, Mr. Hardball. The man who goes mano-a-mano with racism, corruption, xenophobia, Mayor Koch, Rupert Murdoch - all the social injustices as he sees them - three times a week in his New York Daily News column. Champion of the underdog reporter, Breslin is also a here's-one-right-in-the-old-kisser columnist who helped New York's finest crack the Donald Manes corruption scandal, rode former Gov. Hugh Carey out of town on a rail that read ``Society Carey,'' and, in conversation, name-drops Mafia mobsters. This is the man that Geoffrey Stokes, the Village Voice media critic, describes as ``an extremely good reporter and a pretty good writer, but who carries a black cloud the size of Ohio over his head when he broods.'' This is a man who generates controversy.
This is also a man, who for all practical purposes, is basking in his post-Pulitzer period: a beat reporter as upbeat and successful as he's ever been. He's lost weight, curbed his drinking, recently remarried after the death of his wife of 26 years, moved from Queens to Manhattan's Upper West Side, and is rumored to be at work on another book. ``A real saloon rat could not function the way Breslin does,'' says fellow columnist David Nyhan of the Boston Globe. ``He's a highly organized, skinny workaholic disguised in a beer belly.''
Even when he's playing the role of arriviste artist, Breslin talks tough. His play, which debuted last month and which most critics demurely described as ``not up to the Pulitzer Prize winner's usual standards,'' laid bare the facts - as Breslin sees them - of New York's social welfare system. Borrowing from the Eleanor Bumpurs story (an actual welfare eviction case) and to a lesser extent his own novel, ``Queen of the Leaky Roof Circuit'' chronicles a week-in-the-life of one Juliet Queen Booker, a welfare mom about to be bounced from her substandard subsidized housing.
Breslin pillories the usual villains - Italian judges, Irish cops, crack dealers - but saves his knockout punch for that most hands-off of the culpable: black males. ``Why are all these kids on welfare?'' asks Breslin's protagonist. ``Because their fathers are living with some 23-year-old over a takeout chicken place.''
It is the kind of take-no-prisoners politics that deterred at least two black directors from tackling the play. ``It was perceived as a colossal step backward,'' says Harry Newman, executive director of the Non-traditional Casting Project. ``It was all Amos and Andy stuff - dem's and do's - with no positive black males.''
``Breslin has a real Bruegel quality to his column - visceral and slightly below the belt - that invites non-readers into the newspaper,'' says Mr. Nyhan. ``But I don't know if a white Irish working guy is the one to be bringing the black experience to the stage.''
Breslin doesn't truck with this stuff. ``[The play] is an attempt to put what I see in daily life on stage. Instead of writing the column, it's like I brought the people into the city room and said, I'm too busy to write your story - you tell it.''
Breslin, who by now is sandwiched, along with the reporter, into a cubbyhole not much larger than himself, is just getting warmed up. ``But we were getting all these Yale Rep-type actors in, saying they didn't wanna do the reading, didn't wanna read this language, which is only what I have lived with all my life. I said this is Bed-Stuy, not Yale or Howard [University] putting out candidates for `The Bill Cosby Show.' So I said, `No, you be wrong! You be gone!'''
Breslin will spend a minute lambasting last year's Pulitzer Prize-winning black playwright, August Wilson, for turning out ```The Bill Cosby Show' on wood. He don't even know life; he's got that woman throwing her husband out [in the play `Fences'], while on the street women are putting up with guys holding guns to their ears.''
Breslin has by now worked himself into a genuine Breslinesque snit. Which means that everything not nailed down might become airborne any minute. (``Nothing anyone can say about Breslin's behavior would be an exaggeration,'' says one Daily News editor. La Breslin has been known to throw telephones out his office door; ``I hate all that bureaucracy.'') But for the moment, he is limiting himself to half sitting up in his chair, letting his Carmine the Meat-Ax voice bounce off the walls a couple of times before collapsing back down, and hooking the reporter with his hooded eyes, saying in his version of sotto voce, ``I wrote the play because they asked me to.''
Talk about theater.
Breslin, it must be admitted, also wrote the play because they paid him - and paid him handsomely by nonprofit theater standards. (Breslin was one of three ``name'' writers commissioned by Louisville to write a play for the festival to the tune of five figures - a move that generated its own controversy.) ``He was coming into town - artistic director John Jory - and I had to give him something,'' says Breslin. ``So I wrote five or six pages to show him.''
Oh, the ``Exit stage right'' business?
``Nah, I didn't know that yet. Just the `he said,' `she said' stuff. I gave it to him in a Lexington Avenue coffee shop. He took it, and I never heard another word.''
Somebody somewhere got the idea Breslin should see some theater before proceeding too much further. ``They took me to one play, [Lanford Wilson's Off Broadway hit] `Burn This.''' (Breslin pronounces this as ``Burn Dis.'') ``And I'm coming from 100th and First, from having a cup of coffee with Mafia don John Gotti; I know all those gorillas. And I'm in the theater, and this midget actor, John Malkovich, is running around in a wig playing tough guy. And I'm thinking Gotti would take the wig and make him eat it.''
It was the same kind of blustery impatience Breslin brought to the rehearsal hall. He bolted from the room in a rage after one actress repeatedly blew her lines. He also turned his temper on himself. ``It's very humbling for a journalist to see your stuff on stage. You realize how horrible the lines sound. I put my head under the desk when they first did it.''
For all his new forays, none has generated as much controversy as has Breslin's impending ship jumping. The former sportswriter who barely finished high school and who cut his journalistic teeth by chewing through a slew of New York dailies, including the illustrious New York Herald Tribune, before becoming a member of the renegade New Journalists, has been wooed up the street by Newsday. When Breslin's contract at the News runs out in October, he will make the move. Maybe.
``So far,'' says Breslin, flashing an Irish imp grin, when asked about the on-again, off-again rumors. (The Daily News says it has seen no new contract.) ``It looks like a better setup for me there,'' he says. ``Money. Absolutely. Plus another thing: They've got a little more substantial news coverage.''
Breslin has never been shy about wanting to be rich and famous - rich and famous for a newspaperman. True, he dumped ABC's $15,000-a-week job without blinking when they buried his show in the graveyard slot. But Breslin ``is very dependent upon the limelight,'' says one Daily News editor. ``And he has a tendency to spread himself too thin. But when he won the Pulitzer, he was ecstatic.''
There is a polite rapping at the door. Mr. Breslin's 20 minutes are almost up. ``Yeah, yeah,'' says Breslin, giving the door a dismissive wave. ``I'll let you know when the 20 minutes are up.''
Quickly, Mr. Breslin, do you retain faith in your ability as a prizewinning columnist to effect changes within society? ``I retain faith in the cashability of a check from a newspaper. I mean, I work for a living. I got nine kids from two households. It all adds up.''
For all his permanently frayed temper - ``I get mad at everything'' - Breslin is well known as an indulgent and generous paterfamilias. His own father disappeared when Jimmy was 7, and he was raised in a crowded Jamaica, Queens, household, within earshot of the race track, by his mother, who worked in the welfare department. Breslin has said he earned his respect for the little guy by visiting the loser's dressing room when he was a sportswriter. ``I don't do very well with affluence,'' says Breslin.
There is another, less polite, rap at the door. Even Breslin half leans forward. ``You know, you can't give them this nice, cool detached reporting of the birthrate in Harlem. You better put some life in there, let everybody know they're human beings. I'm interested in somebody struggling, that ain't got. That's the fight.''
And with that, Jimmy Breslin opens the door to go on with the fight.