John Wojtowicz
John Wojtowicz

“Were you Al Pacino in the movie?” a man on the street asks John Wojtowicz, whose botched robbery of a Brooklyn bank in August 1972 was dramatized in Dog Day Afternoon. “I’m the bank robber—fuck Al Pacino!” replies Wojtowicz. Questions of identity reverberate through The Dog, a documentary by Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren that chronicles Wojtowicz’s storied and terribly sad life. If you’ve ever seen Dog Day Afternoon, you surely remember its head-turning midmovie plot twist, when the Wojtowicz character is revealed as a gay man who wants money to finance his partner’s sex-change operation. The Dog tells the story of a seemingly average guy who spent his early adult years wrestling with his sexual identity, eventually becoming a pioneering advocate of gay rights and same-sex marriage in the U.S. But after escaping from one social straitjacket, Wojtowicz stumbled right into another when his caper became an international news story and an Oscar-nominated film. For the rest of his life, he would be defined as the protagonist of Dog Day Afternoon.

Shortly after Dog Day was released in 1975, Wojtowicz wrote a long letter to the New York Times complaining about its inaccuracies, yet the true story was so colorful that screenwriter Frank Pierson didn’t have to invent much. On August 22, 1972, Wojtowicz and two other men, 18-year-old Sal Naturale and 20-year-old Bobby Westenberg, walked into a branch bank of Chase Manhattan just before closing time. Westenberg chickened out and fled, but Wojtowicz and Naturale pulled out guns and took the bank’s manager, unarmed security guard, and five female tellers hostage. They nabbed $37,951 in cash and $175,150 in traveler’s checks, but before they could escape the bank was surrounded by police, who’d been tipped off by the manager’s oblique message to a colleague on the phone. By nightfall a huge crowd had formed outside the bank; Wojtowicz came out onto the street to negotiate with police and work the crowd, at one point throwing fistfuls of bills into the air.

Pierson and director Sidney Lumet may have played up the farcical aspects of the story, but the real robbery was a genuine three-ring circus. When Wojtowicz demanded to speak to his lover, Ernest Aron, the cops rounded him up from the hospital where he was being treated following a suicide attempt; he appeared on the scene in a ratty hospital robe, his hair standing up on end, looking exactly like the character played onscreen by Chris Sarandon. Twelve hours after the siege began, the robbers and their hostages were ferried to JFK International Airport, where the criminals were to board a getaway plane, but upon their arrival the FBI agent driving their car managed to grab a pistol concealed under the floor mat and killed Naturale with a single shot to the chest. (In the movie, his character gets it in the head.) Instantly, Wojtowicz surrendered.

Dog Day Afternoon is strictly focused, dramatizing the robbery from beginning to end and clocking in at a little more than two hours; by contrast, The Dog covers the same events in about 20 minutes, a fifth of its running time. For its first half hour, it recounts Wojtowicz’s life leading up to the clumsy heist, and its respectful treatment of his sexual journey couldn’t be more different from the snickering attitude of the Hollywood version. Happy and outgoing as a child, Wojtowicz graduated from high school, got a job as a bank teller, and proposed marriage to a coworker, Carmine Bifulco. But as he recalls in The Dog, his life took an unexpected left turn when, serving in Vietnam, he awoke one night to find another guy in his company going down on him. A romantic relationship followed, and by the time Wojtowicz was discharged in 1967, this straight “Goldwater Republican” had become a bisexual and a fierce opponent of the war. He went ahead with his marriage to Bifulco and fathered two children by her, but the couple soon separated and the Stonewall riots impelled Wojtowicz to join the Gay Activists Alliance.

Berg and Keraudren interview Randy Wicker, a gay reporter from that era who owned one of the earliest commercial video cameras, and The Dog includes fascinating black-and-white footage of the GAA’s early meetings and political actions. Wojtowicz, who had renamed himself “Littlejohn Basso,” takes part in a mock engagement party at the New York Marriage License Bureau in June 1971, and two days after this event he would meet Ernest Aron. The two were married by a Catholic priest (who was later defrocked), with Aron clad in a wedding gown and Wojtowicz’s supportive mother, Terry, in attendance. Unfortunately this marriage also went south, and Aron, who didn’t want to live as a man, attempted suicide. According to Wojtowicz’s account in The Dog, he planned the bank heist to help realize Aron’s dream of becoming a woman. “Love is a very strange thing,” he remembers telling the judge at his sentencing a year later. “Some feel it more deeply than others do.”

Wojtowicz may have poked a few holes in Dog Day Afternoon, yet his version of events might not be entirely trustworthy either. In 2010, four years after Wojtowicz died of cancer, Village Voice columnist Tony Ortega cited two anonymous sources who claim the bank job was actually organized by the Gambino crime family. “The senior Mafia members’ share of the big heist was to have been 50 per cent, or $75,000 to $100,000,” he wrote. “The other 50 percent was to have been divided among the three robbers (originally five were involved; two chickened out). The sex change story, said Voice sources, was peripheral to the motive.” Berg and Keraudren, who spent years cultivating Wojtowicz and his mother as interview subjects, never pursue this, despite a video clip in which Liz Eden (aka Ernest Aron) claims Wojtowicz had been “in debt to the mob.” But The Dog contains other testimony that calls Wojtowicz’s reliability into question—some of it from him. People in the GAA remember him as a wild card, Eden characterizes him as a maniac who sent her threatening notes, and Wojtowicz, contrary to his story of a perfect devotion, remembers penetrating Bobby Westenberg in a hotel room the night before the robbery.

Whoever John Wojtowicz may have been before Dog Day Afternoon, he lost control of his own identity once Al Pacino got hold of him. Weirdly enough, Wojtowicz and his accomplices had spent the afternoon before the robbery watching Pacino in a matinee screening of The Godfather on Times Square. In the Life magazine story “The Boys in the Bank,” which served as uncredited source material for Dog Day Afternoon, writers P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore described Wojtowicz as “a dark, thin fellow with the broken-faced good looks of an Al Pacino or a Dustin Hoffman.” At first the movie was a godsend for Wojtowicz: he used the money from selling his story to finance Aron’s sex change, the movie gave him much-needed credibility among his fellow inmates at Lewisberg Federal Penitentiary, and mail began to pour in from people who considered him a folk hero. But he would become trapped in that image. “When the movie came out, that became the essence of his life,” explains psychiatrist Eugene Lowenkopf, who treated Wojtowicz for 20 years. “It was easy to slip into this notoriety rather than settle down.”

The second half of The Dog covers Wojtowicz’s life after August 1972, and it’s colored by the braggadocio of a man who knows he’s on an irreversible downward slide. Paroled from prison in 1978, he was remanded to his parents’ custody and tried to find honest work, but his skills as a bank teller and bookkeeper were worthless given his criminal record. He approached Chase Manhattan with an absurd proposition that it hire him as a security guard, which was predictably rebuffed. He came up with the idea of starting a limousine service that would capitalize on his fame, with Dog Day Afternoon playing on a TV monitor in the backseat, but his parole officer blocked him from getting a chauffeur’s license. Warner Bros. had promised him 1 percent of the movie’s profits, and after suing the studio, he says, he came away with a $100,000 settlement. But in his last years Wojtowicz was living on welfare, making a few bucks here and there selling his autograph, and bringing street people home to his mother’s apartment for late-night trysts.

Wojtowicz’s status as an early proponent of gay rights tarnished as well. As Randy Wicker recalls, many people in the GAA thought Wojtowicz was off his rocker, and the movement’s leaders quickly distanced themselves from the media carnival and Wojtowicz’s heroic-outlaw persona. “The fact is, he terrorized however many people were in the bank,” says former GAA president Rich Wandel, “and he was the direct cause of somebody being blown away, and witnessed by some of these hostages also, whatever that did to their heads. That’s not a Robin Hood to me. That’s a very sick person.” Unfortunately for Wojtowicz, he had no one else to be. Among the many photos he entrusted to Berg and Keraudren is a snapshot of him standing in front of the bank building in a T-shirt emblazoned with the words i robbed this bank. But as The Dog clearly shows, Wojtowicz was the one who got robbed.