As a New York City police officer, Joe Cirillo saw plenty of action working what was then one of Manhattan's toughest beats, in the 20th Precinct on the Upper West Side.
After retiring from the NYPD in 1977 and trading his badge for a Screen Actors Guild card, Cirillo heard plenty of "Action!" on movie sets ("The Godfather," "Splash," "Ghostbusters") and television shows ("Kojak").
Now Cirillo, 82, who lives in Bellmore, is hoping to put his words into action as co-director and co-producer of "Megaballs," a comedy about a computer nerd whose number may be up when the mob becomes involved in his plan to predict lottery results.
Making "Megaballs" is the culmination of Cirillo's lifelong love of movies that began when he was a youngster in the Bronx. "I would go to the movies all day on Saturday. I knew where every movie theater was," he says.
Back then, opportunities for a show-biz career seemed impossible. After an Army stint during the Korean War, Cirillo returned to New York and was hired at a piano company before getting a job with the U.S. Postal Service, working the midnight-to-
8 a.m. shift. Friends convinced him to apply for the New York Police Department, and, by 1957, he was in uniform.
From cop to 'Kojak'
Working as a cop seemed like an unlikely beginning to a film career, until Cirillo's lucky 13th year on the job. In 1970, he was assigned as precinct liaison to the Museum of Natural History near The Beresford, an apartment building at 81st Street and Central Park West. It was home to director Mike Nichols, singers Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, actor Phil Silvers and other celebs. "Joe the Cop" became friendly with all of them.
Through Nichols, Cirillo secured an introduction to the movie studio that was making "The Godfather." "I was interviewed by one of the women at Paramount, and she asked me, 'What makes you think you can act?' I said: 'I'm a policeman. We're doctors, we're lawyers, we're Indian chiefs. We do everything.' "
Cirillo was given a small speaking role as a wedding guest in a scene with Robert Duvall. His part landed on the cutting room floor, although he and his wife, Norma, can be seen fleetingly in one shot.
Cirillo still receives residual checks for the movie, as well as for others in which he had a speaking role. "Godfather" checks are only about $30 a pop, but Cirillo says he made "a few thousand dollars" in total residuals last year.
He also still savors the kinds of pasta, pastries and other Italian delicacies he indulged in while shooting the "Godfather" scene. "Francis Ford Coppola [the director] said to us to eat and enjoy ourselves like we were really at a wedding. I got sick on the set from eating so much, but the food was incredible. I said, 'If I die today, I'm going to die happy,' " Cirillo recalls.
He studied acting at HB Studios and the School of Visual Arts, both in Manhattan, and landed bit parts and work as an extra in movies, including "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight" (1971), "Serpico" (1973) and "Harry and Tonto" (1974).
In 1976, "Kojak," the Emmy-winning series starring Telly Savalas as a New York City detective who licked crime and lollipops, shifted shooting from Los Angeles to the Big Apple for its fourth season. Producers approached the NYPD's motion picture unit seeking an officer to serve as a bodyguard. Cirillo was hired.
The series wrapped filming a few months before Cirillo's NYPD retirement. Savalas told Cirillo that a job was waiting for him in Los Angeles, where filming would resume for the next season. Cirillo moved west to be the series' technical adviser and also appeared in several episodes. He came home on weekends to be with his wife and three children, Dennis (who also became a police officer), Richard and Darlene.
Cirillo's cop smarts heightened the show's authenticity. Once, he advised producers to delete a scene where Lt. Kojak chewed out a four-star police chief. "They said they wanted to take poetic license. I said, 'That would never happen,' " and, he says, they followed his advice.
On other occasions, directors were less amenable to his suggestions. For one episode involving a SWAT team in a hostage situation, Cirillo spoke to members of the NYPD's hostage negotiating team for scene advice. "When I saw how they set it up on the show, I told the director, 'This is all wrong.' He said, 'I'm the director,' and shot it his way."
When producers saw the unedited dailies, they were aghast. "They told the director and the production manager, 'If Joe Cirillo says it's wrong, he has the right to stop the shooting and let us know what's wrong,' " Cirillo says.
A job with security
After "Kojak" ended its five-season run, Cirillo became the technical adviser on the NBC police drama "Eischied," starring Joe Don Baker as an NYPD chief of detectives. Cirillo also had a regular role as Baker's driver.
Though "Eischied" garnered mostly favorable reviews, it was doomed by a tough time slot (10 p.m. Fridays against "Dallas") and only lasted 13 episodes. After cast and crew got their two weeks' notice, Cirillo called his wife and told her he would be coming home. "She said, 'Thank God,' " Cirillo recalls.
He had barely hung up when a casting director from Columbia Pictures offered Cirillo two TV pilots. "I dialed my wife again and said I'm not coming home. There was dead silence," Cirillo says. "Then she said, 'You come home -- or else.' So I gave it all up."
Cirillo, whose wife died four years ago, never asked about the story line of the pilots, and had no regrets. "I was married 25 years at the time, and it gave me the chance to start my security business."
Thanks to his film industry connections, Cirillo formed a company that provided security to stars and on movie sets. But he still did some acting in films, including two 1984 comedies. In "Splash," he was a police sergeant who encountered naked mermaid Daryl Hannah, and he also did stunts for Eugene Levy, who played the mermaid hunter. In "Ghostbusters," Cirillo was a police captain who got slimed. He says he's been in more than 200 movies and TV shows.
Providing security on sets led to encounters with many celebrity clients, including Tom Hanks, Barbra Streisand, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Jackie Gleason and Meryl Streep.
Among his favorites is Sophia Loren, whom he worked with three times. "I remember once we were shooting in the Bowery and there was a derelict we passed as I was bringing her back to her camper," Cirillo says. "She said in Italian, 'that poor man,' and then she handed me a $20 bill and said to give it to him."
Playing the lottery
Besides A-listers, Cirillo became friends with fellow actor Marc Baron, whom he met when they were extras in the 1991 movie "The Good Policeman." They bonded immediately, and over the years, frequently worked together on films.
In 2008, Cirillo and Baron decided to form their own business, Oroloro Entertainment, to develop and produce independent films. Each has penned several screenplays, and they are now hoping to hit the jackpot with "Megaballs." They have been talking with private investors to raise funds for their projected budget of $720,000 to $980,000, and Joyce Randolph of "Honeymooners" fame has signed on for a role.
Cirillo and Baron worked together, fine-tuning the script. "Because we know each other so long, there's a trust there and we will give each other an honest opinion," says Baron, an Elmont native who lives in Manhattan. "We have the same sensibility on humor and what we like in a story. I tend to be a little more reserved, and Joe's more outgoing, and I'm more savvy on the business end."
Cirillo also has two musicals he's worked on. He penned lyrics for 20 songs for "Bagels and Luck," a story set in the Bronx in 1939. It's about a star-struck boy who enters a movie magazine contest where the grand prize is a visit from a film star. In addition, Cirillo, who has nine grandchildren and seven great-grandkids, wrote his own musical, "Matriarch," which was inspired by the 1955 film "Marty."
Cirillo believes persistence will help get all of his projects into production, the way it helped win him TV and movie roles. "I never paid an agent one dime," he says. "Everything I got, I got on my own."