The suspenseful 1975 crime drama, Dog Day Afternoon, was nominated for six Oscars—including one for actor Al Pacino’s ultra-intense turn as “Sonny Wortzik,” based on the real-life ill-fated Brooklyn bank robber, John Wojtowicz. It is justly considered one of the classics of Seventies cinema, but what of the actual story behind the events portrayed in the film?
From what I can tell, Sidney Lumet’s film, from a screenplay by Frank Pierson (A Star is Born, Cool Hand Luke, Soldier’s Girl), and based on reporting from LIFE magazine, was essentially pretty accurate to real-life events. John Woitowicz, a bisexual man and former bank clerk, convinced two accomplices, 18-year-old Salvatore Naturile (who was killed by the FBI) and Robert Westenberg (who fled the crime scene when we saw the first police car show up) to help him rob a bank. The reason for the heist, which was poorly planned and partially based on something in The Godfather (which Woitowicz had only seen that morning) was to obtain the money to pay for a sex-change operation for Wojtowicz’s partner, a pre-op transsexual named Elizabeth “Liz” Eden (played by Oscar-nominated actor, Chris Sarandon).
Wojtowicz, writing The New York Times in an unpublished letter from his jail cell after the film was released, describes his reasons for the bank robbery:
“[...] I did what a man has to do in order to save the life of someone I loved a great deal. His name was Ernest Aron (now known as Ms. Liz Debbie Eden) and he was Gay. He wanted to be a woman through the process of a sex-change operation and thus was labeled by doctors as a Gender Identity Problem. He felt he was a woman trapped in a man’s body. This caused him untold pain and problems which accounted for his many suicide attempts. I met him in 1971 at an Italian Bazaar in N.Y.C. after two years of separation from my female wife, Carmen, and two children.
Ernest and I were married in Greenwich Village in N.Y.C. on 12/4/71 in a Roman Catholic ceremony. We had our ups and downs as most couples do, and I tried my best to get him the money he needed for his sex change operation he so badly needed. I was unable to obtain the funds for his birthday on 8/19/72 and so, on Sunday, 8/29, he attempted suicide while I was at of the house. He died a clinical death in the hospital but was revived. While I went to get his clothes, he was declared mentally sick and sent to the Psychiatric Ward of Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, NY. I went to see him and I tried to obtain his release on 8/21, but was told he would not be released and would stay there for a long time until he was cured.
Soon 8/22/75, along with two others, I began what I felt was necessary to save the life of someone I truly and deeply loved. No monetary value can be placed on a human life, and as it says in the Bible - “No greater love both a man then to lie down his life for another.”
On August 22, 1972, Wojtowicz, Naturile and (at first) Westenberg attempted to rob a Chase Manhattan branch on the corner of East Third Street and Avenue P in Gravesend, Brooklyn. What was supposed to take ten minutes turned into a fourteen hour stand-off and hostage negotiations with police, and saw hundreds, if not thousands, of onlookers showing up to gawk at the events. For about two days Wojtowicz became an unlikely sort of media anti-hero.
John Wojtowicz was sentenced to twenty years in prison, but got out after fourteen. A photograph of Wojtowicz with Liz Eden (who was able to get a sex change operation out of the $7500 fee that Wojtowicz made from the film) after his release can be see here. Liz Eden died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1987. John Wojtowicz was living on welfare in Brooklyn when he died of cancer in 2006.
The trailer for Dog Day Afternoon (note The Living Theatre’s Judith Malina as Wojtowicz’s mother):
Below, Harry Reasoner reports on the Brooklyn bank heist gone wrong on ABC News in 1972:
Thank you, Michael Feldman!