"His was the triumph of the local, and to get the local right, you have to get how people made a living, how they got paid, how they didn't get paid, and to be able to bring it to life," said Pete Hamill, another famed New York columnist who in the 1970s shared an office with Breslin at the Daily News.
"Jimmy really admired people whose favorite four-letter word was work," said Hamill, speaking from New Orleans.
Breslin died at his Manhattan home of complications from pneumonia, according to his stepdaughter, Emily Eldridge.
It was the rumpled Breslin who mounted a quixotic political campaign for citywide office in the 1960s; who became the Son of Sam's regular correspondent in the 1970s; who exposed the city's worst corruption scandal in decades in the 1980s; who was pulled from a car and nearly stripped naked by Brooklyn rioters in the 1990s.
With his uncombed mop of hair and sneering Queens accent, Breslin was a confessor and town crier and sometimes seemed like a character right out of his own work. And he didn't mind telling you.
"I'm the best person ever to have a column in this business," he once boasted. "There's never been anybody in my league."
He was an acclaimed author, too. "The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight" was his comic account of warring Brooklyn mobsters that was made into a 1971 movie. "Damon Runyon: A Life" was an account of another famous New York newsman, and "I Want to Thank My Brain for Remembering Me" was a memoir.
Breslin was "an intellectual disguised as a barroom primitive," wrote Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett in their book "City for Sale."
He acknowledged being prone to fits of bad temper. After spewing ethnic slurs at a Korean-American co-worker in 1990, Breslin apologized by writing, "I am no good and once again I can prove it."
But under the tough, belligerent personality was someone else — a son whose hard-drinking father left home when he was 6 to get a loaf of bread and never returned, Hamill said. Breslin's mother supported the family by working as a welfare system administrator, raising the boy along with her two sisters.
"The gruff personality was a mask a guy would don to get through the day," Hamill said. "Under the mask, what you found at his core was being raised by women, so life is more complicated than a punch in the jaw."
In the 1980s, he won both the Pulitzer for commentary and the George Polk Award for metropolitan reporting. The Pulitzer committee noted that Breslin's columns "consistently championed ordinary citizens."
A few days after the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, he wrote of the dwindling hopes for families.
"The streets have been covered with pictures and posters of missing people," he wrote. "The messages on the posters begging for help. Their wife could be in a coma in a hospital. The husband could be wandering the street. Please look. My sister could have stumbled out of the wreckage and taken to a hospital that doesn't know her. Help. Call if you see her. But now it is the ninth day and the beautiful sad hope of the families seems more like denial."
In other columns, Breslin presented an array of recurring characters: Klein the Lawyer, Shelly the Bail Bondsman, Un Occhio the mob boss. They seemed to blur the line between fact and fiction, until the first pair became key figures in Breslin's 1986 exclusive on the multimillion-dollar Parking Violations Bureau scandal.