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The real-life inspiration behind ‘Dog Day Afternoon’
by Megan Smith
John Wojtowicz, or “The Dog” as he’s nicknamed, is the definition of a character. He has too many identities to count, and he jumps from one to the other so quickly, you may not want to blink. He’s a former Goldwater Republican, a Vietnam War veteran, a gay-rights activist, a lover, a mama’s boy, and, well, a bank robber. Meet the real-life inspiration behind Sidney Lumet’s 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon.
Directors Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren bring us The Dog, an intimate portrayal of Wojtowicz filmed over the course of 10 years. As we come to find out, most of what we see in Dog Day Afternoon is pretty accurate. But there’s so much more to Wojtowicz than Al Pacino’s portrayal in the Hollywood rendition—mostly that, at the heart of things, he’s pretty darn romantic.
In 1972, Wojtowicz entered a Chase Manhattan bank with two other accomplices and attempted a robbery that he had planned to take 15 minutes. What resulted was a 14-hour hostage situation that was broadcast across the nation. But more shocking than the robbery—remember, this was the 1970s—was the motive behind the act: Wojtowicz was robbing the bank to secure money for his transgender lover’s sex reassignment surgery. Wojtowicz was eventually detained by police, was sentenced to 20 years, and served five.
Although this motive was revealed in Dog Day Afternoon, the overwhelming devotion that Wojtowicz had for his lover—Ernie Aron, later known as Liz Eden—was far from adequately represented. In The Dog, Wojtowicz is presented much more as an unlikely Romeo. He’s short, pale, snaggle-toothed, and is a self-described “pervert”—reasoning that since he doesn’t smoke, drink, or gamble, he’s allowed to have sex as his vice. He has three “wives” over the course of his life—one cisgender woman, Eden, and a male “wife” he meets during his time in prison. But, despite his lack of monogamy to each, his love for all three partners remains genuine—a fact that is very apparent during his interviews in the film.
Although he failed to get the money for Eden during the robbery, he ultimately used the modest royalties he received from Dog Day Afternoon to pay for her surgery. A vintage TV interview featured in The Dog, in which Wojtowicz phones in from prison to speak with Eden, does an excellent job of exemplifying his undying passion for her. Despite his being incarcerated, if she’s happy, he’s happy.
The Dog is filled with candid interviews and archival footage that not only paint a more holistic picture of the man behind the infamous robbery, but also serves as a tour of the early gay liberation movement. Although Dog Day Afternoon slightly downplayed Wojtowicz’s gayness, he was, in fact, involved in the Gay Activist’s Alliance and very active within the Greenwich Village gay scene. His mother—a complete character in herself
who spoiled Wojtowicz and his lovers—even recalls following her son to the Village to spy on him. “See, I knew more than he thought,” she says in the film.
Wojtowicz did not let his 15 minutes of fame fade away easily. Following his release from prison until the time of his death in 2006 following a battle with cancer, Wojtowicz milked his semi-celebrity status for all it was worth. The Dog shows him outside of “his” bank sporting a shirt that reads “I Robbed This Bank,” and signing autographs for passersby.
But this larger-than-life character reveals yet another side of himself in the movie’s scenes depicting time spent with his brother, who was removed from the family home at a young age and sent to a government-run facility because he experiences severe seizures. Wojtowicz is his same foul-mouthed self around his brother, but a nurturing aspect also shines through. As the two laugh together on a trip to Coney Island, we see—once again—the size of Wojtowicz’s heart matches his enormous personality.
“If I had a dream and in that dream I saw everything that happened, would I still go out and do it?,” Wojtowicz asks in the film. “You’re damn right I’d still go out and do it.”
Available from Drafthouse Films (drafthousefilms.com) and Cinedigm (cinedigm.com).