EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Les Breault started his photojournalism career bringing WPRI 12 viewers “film at 11.”
He retired 42 years later, shooting digital video on a Post-It-note-sized “card.”
In between, Les tracked history in Rhode Island and beyond, and here are a clean dozen tales from his long career.
The 12 most impactful
Les listed the following as the most impactful assignments he worked on, in no particular order. The Blizzard of ’78, the Operation Plunder Dome corruption case, the late Mayor Cianci assault investigation, the Rhode Island banking crisis, the Edward DiPrete corruption case, the Southeastern Massachusetts highway murders, the Big Dan’s bar rape trial in New Bedford, the Newtown mass shooting, the 1988 earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Claus von Bulow trials, the Station Nightclub fire, the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
At the top of the list
The assignment he’ll remember most covered a day many will never forget. Sept. 11 started like many other mornings in WPRI’s newsroom. But by early afternoon, Les and this reporter were in New York City. Les’s resourcefulness was invaluable several times, as were his dedication and calm demeanor.
But his recollection focuses on the people impacted by the tragedy, starting with the very first person we put on tape. Her daughter was in one of the buildings. “She was just sitting, waiting to hear,” he recalled.
The other side of the lens
Les made history as one of the courtroom photographers for the Claus von Bulow attempted murder trial in the early ’80s in Newport. It was one of the first trials to be broadcast nationwide and young Les was in a “Nightline” piece about the impact of cameras in the courtroom.
“It was weird,” Les said with a laugh. “I never wanted to be on the other side of the lens.”
Les spent almost half his career as Call 12 for Action’s photographer, working with a couple of Susans – Hogan and Campbell. He won an Emmy Award and was nominated several other times. But he would tell you the hardware does not outshine helping viewers.
“It’s sad that it takes a television station to make companies do what’s right,” he said. “It’s gratifying to solve their problems.”
Split pants and ‘a catch’ with Clemens
Back in the day, photographers were allowed to shoot from the field at McCoy Stadium.
“We shot from behind the third base coach,” Les said.
One day, a young Roger Clemens tossed Les a mitt and asked him to play catch in the bullpen until the catcher was ready. Les obliged.
Then there was the time Les was shooting video of the field, with his back to the stands, when he split his pants. “The crowd just went crazy,” Les said.
In one of the most stressful businesses out there, Les was rarely riled. Many of his friends and co-workers have their own renditions of the calming shrug and sigh Les would offer in response to a red-hot, nerve-wracking, scream-invoking deadline or dilemma.
Even when the late, great Mr. White was a bit perturbed
One day during the pressure-packed grind of the 2002 Plunder Dome trial, one evening’s set of scripts got inexplicably shuffled. Les inadvertently edited Jack White’s 6 p.m. story first and it ran in the 5 p.m. slot, provoking some heat from Jack. He did not notice Les in the live truck, shrugging and grinning ever so slightly, as if to say, “It will all be OK.”
But photographer John Villella saw his co-worker, and cracked a smile, prompting a scolding from the Pulitzer-winning legend.
Or when there was no film in the camera
When Les started, a crotchety co-worker often showed great disdain for the rookies. One day, he set Les up to fail by making it appear as though one of the cameras was loaded with film and ready to use. So the kid from Bristol shot the entire story, only to come back with not a frame.
“The reporter cried,” Les recalled. But the young photographer and his boss at the time chuckled a bit.
“There was a lot of failure in the film era,” he said. “We had to deal with it and try again the next day.”
His work is also his hobby
Les started at WPRI 12 in 1977, but he already loved photography.
“I bought my first camera in the early ’70s,” he said.
Even as he was well into his career, he started a side hustle, shooting and selling stock shots of everything from sunsets to lighthouses.
“I’ll keep doing that when I’m done here,” he said.
All the Presidents’ photogs
Les pointed out he was the photographer for one-on-one interviews with “every president since Carter.”
When asked if that included President Trump, he said no. But at the 1988 Republican National Convention in New Orleans, he did meet the New York tycoon.
“He was with [Gov. Ed] DiPrete. He was telling me how great DiPrete was,” Les said.
(In 1994, DiPrete was indicted for selling state contracts.)
Followed in his father’s footsteps
May 2 was not only Les’s last day at WPRI 12, it was also the station’s first day in about 60 years without a Breault. Les’s late father, Al, started at the station in 1960. Les did help out as a photographer here and there during election season.
“He worked with Jack White one time,” Les said.
But as far as the Breault legacy continuing, Les shook his head, saying his son Paul is happy with his career as a teacher.
May 6 will actually be the first day Les does not drive to the station and get into Car 7 for an assignment. When asked what he anticipates for that first, true day of retirement, he offered that well-recognized, Les Breault shrug.
“I don’t know yet,” he said. “[I’m] excited. A new chapter. You do something every day for 42 years, it’s going to be a change. I’m looking forward to it.”