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The New York Skyline Is Our Most Memorable Character Actor

Helicopter pilot Al Cerullo. Photo: Courtesy of Al Cerullo

If you’ve ever seen a movie that opens with a shot of the New York skyline, you probably know Al Cerullo’s work.

For the past five decades, Cerullo, 76 and from Long Island, has been the helicopter pilot most often hired to fly camera crews above the city, helping to make it look its best (or worst) in Saturday Night Fever, When Harry Met Sally …, Working Girl, Law & Order, The Devil Wears Prada, Cloverfield, Gossip Girl, Succession, and Avengers: Infinity War. “I’ve probably shot 500 movies and logged 28,000 hours of flight time,” he estimates, calling from an airport in Farmingdale.

In most cities, filmmakers now shoot their overhead footage with drones. But unmanned aircraft are banned in New York, and even if they weren’t, they’d be no match for Cerullo. “Drones are useful for beauty shots,” he says, “but they can’t zoom in as far as we can, and they definitely won’t work for action sequences, like where you’re following somebody in a car or boat.”

Cerullo’s aviation career began with a 13-month tour in Vietnam flying attack helicopters. “I used to go between trees, taking down branches,” he says. He was shot down and awarded a Purple Heart, and he came home to Long Island in 1968. He got into show business through commercials and baseball games (he still shoots parades and fireworks for NBC) and made his film debut with Alan J. Pakula’s Klute in 1971.

Occasionally, cameras are pointed at Cerullo, who joined the unions that became SAG-AFTRA in 1978. That’s his chopper tailing Ray Liotta’s car in Goodfellas (“My ground coordinator was in the back seat telling me where to turn”); making a surprise landing in Union Square in 1997’s Conspiracy Theory (“It was awesome. It took us three months to get that permit. There’s no way they’d let me do that now”); and, in the 2010 Mark Wahlberg–Will Ferrell comedy The Other Guys, spinning out of control in the Chelsea Piers golf club (“I actually flew right into the driving range, and they had the nets up and then you see me get hit in the head with a golf ball — but the explosion is fake, obviously”).

Photo: Courtesy of Al Cerullo

Cerullo owns the Cessna 421 that flies Robert De Niro from Long Island to Philadelphia to whack Jimmy Hoffa in The Irishman. “I was flying in my helicopter,” Cerullo says, “filming my airplane. My plane was built in the ’70s, which is why they wanted it for the movie — it was perfect. But then you have the critics on Twitter: ‘You know, there were no GPS’s in the ’70s, so what are those black boxes on the dashboard?’ Come on, guys. Just watch the movie.” He has larger anachronisms to worry about. “The New York skyline has been changing big time,” says Cerullo, who has been asked by directors of period movies to avoid newer residential eyesores like One57 and the Central Park Tower in favor of the city’s more-classic skyscrapers.

Improvements in special effects have made Cerullo’s job easier, but his best war stories are from pre-CGI assignments. In the 1985 action movie The Protector, his helicopter, flying low over the Upper Bay, lifts Jackie Chan off a speedboat seconds before a crash. Actually, he did it twice: “The first time we tried it, the pyrotechnics guy blew up the other boat before Jackie’s boat hit it. We had to come back and do it again the following weekend with a whole new boat.”

While shooting 1978’s Superman, “I was hovering right outside Lois Lane’s apartment on the Upper East Side,” Cerullo says. “The production rented the penthouse where she was supposed to live but not the apartment below it. So whoever lived there started throwing tomatoes at us. I told the crew over the radio, ‘Guys, we got a problem — when we do the pullout, you’re gonna see tomatoes flying at the camera.’ Somebody had to go downstairs and buy them out, too.”

After 9/11, Cerullo couldn’t work for six months because New York was a no-fly zone. While shooting in midtown for 2002’s Two Weeks Notice, police radioed to ask what he was doing in the airspace. “Everybody was paranoid,” he says. “They thought we were going to crash into the building like kamikazes or whatever. But we still got the shots we needed.”

Even though he earns the same daily rate no matter the job, Cerullo prefers the harder ones. “Just shooting B-roll is fine, I guess. For Sleepless in Seattle, okay, I got to get a little close to the Empire State Building. That’s nice, I suppose. But I like the stuff that’s a challenge.”

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The New York Skyline Is Our Most Memorable Character Actor