Three years before 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon came out in theatres; the strangest but truest story took place in Brooklyn. There was a man who called himself “The Dog,” and he really did rob a bank to fund a sex-change operation for his lover.
The 14-hour standoff at the bank was turned into a 125-minute film, but the movie doesn’t even begin to capture what happened to John Wojtowicz, aka the Dog. From the backstory to behind-the-scenes facts to the aftermath and even what Wojtowicz himself had to say about the movie, this is the wild, real, and even comical ride that is Dog Day Afternoon.
“Broken-Faced, Good Looks” of Pacino or Hoffman
It comes as no surprise that Al Pacino was chosen for the role of Sonny in the movie. Not only is he one of the best, but he actually looks a lot like the real dude, John Wojtowicz. Around the time of the robbery, Kluge magazine even described Wojtowicz as “a dark, thin fellow with the broken-faced good looks of an Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman.”
So, it only makes sense that the script for the film landed in both actors’ hands. As it turns out, Pacino was director Sidney Lumet’s first choice, but he initially turned it down (he wanted a break). At that point, Hoffman was reportedly approached.
Casting Sal Was a Tad More, Um, Difficult
Wojtowicz’s accomplice was an 18-year-old amateur criminal named Salvatore Naturale. Screenwriter Frank Pierson imagined the Sal character as a handsome young man of “medium height, also good-looking in an intense boyish way.”
It was Pacino who recommended his good friend John Cazale (his buddy from The Godfather) for the role. But Lumet was skeptical. 39-year-old Cazale as a cute 18-year-old bank robber? Ummm… But Cazale read for the part and the director was sold within minutes.
The Director Chose Not to Use This Strange-but-True Part of the Story
During the real-life standoff, people watched as the news showed home movie footage of Wojtowicz’s marriage to his lover (played by Chris Sarandon in the movie) whose sex-change operation was the whole purpose for the robbery.
What the movie showed was nothing more than a photo of the “bride” in a white dress. The real wedding footage was a lot (a lot) more colorful, with cross-dressing and alternative kinds of, um, merriment. Lumet felt it would shift the tone of the film. He worried that viewers wouldn’t come back to the reality of the robbery after seeing it.
Pacino’s Mustache Was Relevant but “Terrible”
Pacino’s a professional, no doubt. One of the things he did to get into character was grow a mustache. Apparently, it wasn’t because the real robber had one himself. Rather, the reason was that it was the ‘70s, the robber was gay, and it was common for gay men to have mustaches back then.
Lumet, however, thought Pacino’s mustache “looked terrible.” After day one of filming, Pacino also agreed that it was bad. Watching the footage, he told Lumet, “The mustache has got to go.” He then asked if he could shave it and re-film that day’s work sans mustache. Lumet agreed.
There Were More Bystanders Than Hired Extras
Close to 300 extras were paid to play the crowd that gathers around the exterior of the bank during the standoff. But there was almost no need to spend money. Filming a hostage situation on a real city street means people will stop and watch.
Every day of filming, a crowd would form, especially in the late afternoons. The hired extras even did a great job getting the civilians to act for the scene. It was basically one huge improv exercise. Those who lived on the block were offered hotel rooms if they wanted, but most chose to stick around for the action.
Pacino (and His Character) Were Beyond Exhausted
Near the end of the movie, an exhausted Sonny makes two emotionally tiring phone calls. The scene was filmed near the end of the shoot as well, so both Pacino and his character were equally drained. Taking advantage of Pacino’s exhaustion and desire to finish it, Lumet filmed the phone calls together, one after another, with no cut in between.
This way, Pacino would be worn out. The sequence lasted about 16 minutes, and when it was over, Lumet told Pacino to do another take. Both calls, again. No time for resting. Now. It was that second take that appeared in the movie.
One Whisper Is All It Took
One of the film’s most iconic moments was improvised. Pacino revealed that it was one word that was whispered to him on set that sent him down an unscripted path that eventually became famous in its own right.
An assistant director whispered a magic word to Pacino in the scene where he rallies the crowd outside the bank. The word: “Attica.” He told Pacino, “Go ahead. Say it to the crowd out there. Attica.” Pacino then recalled, “I sort of half got it, so when I got out there, I looked around. Cameras are rolling… I looked around, and I just said, ‘Hey, you know, Attica, right?’”
And the rest is history.
The Only Time Improv Was Allowed in His Movies
“You get that whole Attica scene because an AD [assistant director] whispered in my ear as I’m going out a door. I mean, that is what movies are,” Pacino shared. The thing is, director Sidney Lumet was known for not allowing improv in his movies.
For those who don’t know, the first movie Lumet filmed was 1957’s 12 Angry Men. 20 films later came Dog Day Afternoon, and he made 22 more afterward. The director never used improv, except for this movie. “I don’t like actors to improvise, to use their own language,” Lumet said in the Dog Day Afternoon DVD commentary.
The Film Won Best Screenplay, After All
“They are not going to come up with something … better than a really talented writer who has done months of work on something.” But his opinion changed when the cast started rehearsing their lines together. When Lumet and the cast were rehearsing their scenes, specifically the ones where the robbers and bank employees are sitting around killing time, one of the actors asked if they could improvise.
Lumet realized it could help the actors bond, as well as make their interactions feel natural. With screenwriter Pierson there, Lumet let the actors ad-lib in rehearsal. He recorded it and later decided to add some of those improvised conversations to the film. You should know that the script was the one Oscar that Dog Day Afternoon took home.
Making the Director Laugh: Check
There were two more instances of ad-libbing on set. The first was at Lumet’s request, in the scene when Sal fires his gun at the bank. Sonny goes outside and gets yelled at by a cop played by Charles Durning. Lumet told Durning to improvise – to get Sonny on the defensive somehow. The energy (and confusion) from both actors was palpable.
The second time was more of a happy accident, when Sonny asks Sal if there’s any specific country he wants to go to. Sal wasn’t supposed to reply (as per the script), but while shooting, Cazale responded with “Wyoming.” Pacino stayed in character while Lumet tried his best not to laugh behind the camera.
Did You Notice There Was No Music?
Other than the Elton John song that we heard playing over the opening credits (which was coming from Sonny’s car radio) and a few other radio snippets, there’s no music in the whole movie. Lumet was obviously a very calculated man, and having a musical score was not part of his plan.
“I could not reconcile trying to convince an audience that this really happened, which I felt was the first obligation of the movie, with putting a music score in,” the director explained. “How would it have felt if suddenly in the midst of [a dramatic] sequence you’d have heard an orchestra?”
No Studio Sets Allowed
Most of the movie is set in three places: the bank, the street outside the bank, and the barbershop across the street from the bank. It’s standard for films to shoot the street scenes on location, whereas the bank and barbershop locations would be typically shot in a studio (where lighting and sound are easier to control).
But Lumet wanted it to be realistic. So, he found a block in Brooklyn that suited the job perfectly, including a vacant warehouse that was turned into the bank location.
Sweaty Makeup and Ice Chips
Speaking of filming on location, the movie takes place in late August, but the shooting itself occurred in the fall. And it was a particularly chilly season at that. The makeup department made everyone look as sweaty as one would be in August in NYC.
When they filmed outside, you could see the actors’ breath in the cold air. Obviously, that would be a strange thing to see in the summer. The solution? Giving the actors ice chips to put in their mouths to cool their breath before it hit the air. Cold days and icy mouths? Fuuunnn…
The Televised Play-by-Play
The robbery was like a modern-day circus act; it attracted crowds and media alike. “This was broadcast like the World Trade Center, this was on all day and all night,” as was mentioned in the documentary, The Dog.
The whole play-by-play was seen on local New York City television. It even obstructed the coverage of Richard Nixon’s acceptance that same evening. But the people who watched it all unfold in front of their eyes probably don’t know half of what happened after the 14-hour standoff. What happened after the robbery is basically a screenplay of its own…
Wojtowicz Watched the Movie in Prison
By September 1975, when Dog Day Afternoon hit theaters, Wojtowicz was three years into his 20-year federal prison sentence in Pennsylvania (he was released after five years, by appeal). Thanks to his pseudo-celebrity status, he was the subject of a lot of abuse in prison.
Serious stuff, like rape and a beating that left him hospitalized and suffering from nightmares even decades later. Upon news of the film, the prison warden initially objected to showing the film to the inmates. Wojtowicz was livid. When the warden said, “We’re not showing this,” Wojtowicz had something to say…
By His “Cannolis,” No Less!
He told the warden, “If you don’t show this in the prison, I’ll go to the press and I’ll hang you by your f***ing cannolis. And I’ll start the biggest prison riot you ever saw. I want the f***ing movie shown and I want it shown to the inmates because I promised them for years, because nobody believed there was going to be a movie.”
This is the kind of stuff that just can’t be made up, folks. Stranger than fiction, Wojtowicz’s true story is one that simply must be told. Are you ready for the backstory of your favorite 1970s gay Pacino bank robbery film? Let’s go…
John Wojtowicz Started Out Living a “Normal” Life
Wojtowicz was born in New York City in 1945. He led a relatively “normal,” coming-of-age life in the late ‘60s. After high school, Wojtowicz served in Vietnam. It was during basic training, before being sent off to war, that he had his first homosexual encounter, thanks to a “hillbilly by the name of Wilbur.”
Wojtowicz’s military service is mentioned in Dog Day Afternoon, but the film doesn’t do justice to the extent to which the war shaped him. Wojtowicz described how their late night “encounters” were unexpected but became something “like a summer breeze.” (His actual depiction was a lot more descriptive, by the way).
“The Service Screwed Him All Up”
When he returned home, Wojtowicz didn’t only make an effort to keep his sexuality a secret, he also had to deal with the aftermath of his personal wartime experiences. For one, he was one of the few living survivors of a rocket attack on his base.
“When he was a kid, he was good. He was no trouble,” his mother Terry shared. “The service screwed him all up.” After Wojtowicz was discharged in 1967, he began working for Chase Manhattan Bank. There, he met and embarked on a relationship with a female coworker named Carmen Bifulco.
Tired of Living a Lie
The two married that year, but Wojtowicz was living a lie. He had to tell her the truth, which meant splitting up. Wojtowicz and Bifulco divorced in 1969 and he started to the live the life he truly wanted for himself. He joined the Gay Activist Alliance and started seeing men.
In 1971, Wojtowicz met a man named Ernie Aron, who would in today’s world be known as transgender. Aron identified as a woman and went by the name Liz Eden. Later that year, the two married, but it wasn’t an official ceremony because it wasn’t legal at the time.
The Infamous Gender-Reassignment Surgery
Eden wanted gender-reassignment surgery. For a while, Wojtowicz opposed the idea, until Eden was hospitalized after trying to commit suicide. Wojtowicz was convinced that the surgery had to be done and he was going to pay for it. But he didn’t have the cash. The only logical idea was for him to rob a bank…
So, Wojtowicz, then 27, put together a team, recruiting two others: Bobby Westenberg, 20, and Salvatore Naturale, 18, both of whom he met previously at a gay bar. The trio, you might imagine, was far from professional.
Round One: Fail
They started out, on August 22, 1972, by driving around New York looking for a bank to rob. The bank they eventually robbed was a Chase location in Brooklyn, but before they settled on Chase, they tried a few other banks.
They first tried one on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, but the robbery was botched. One of the three dropped his shotgun while getting out of the car, which went off and drew a slew of onlookers, so they fled the scene. The second try was embarrassing as well, but for other reasons…
Round Two: Fail
The next bank they tried was in Queens’s Howard Beach, but this attempt was also foiled. Why? Because, just as they were about to pull out their guns, they ran into one of their mothers’ best friends (no wonder it was made into a movie, right?).
There was almost a foiled round three when, back in Manhattan, on a dry run of their getaway, the trio crashed into a car. Third time’s a charm? Kind of, if you don’t include the dry run. Eventually, they made the news with their actual robbery. But first…
The Night Before Dog Day Afternoon
On the big (dog) day, the third robber, Bobby Westenberg, got cold feet and ran out of the bank just before the police arrived. The night before, he and Wojtowicz had slept together. Wojtowicz recalled what happened: “We went to the Golden Nugget Motel, the night before the robbery. While we were in there, I grabbed a hold of Bobby Westenberg…”
Wojtowicz was attracted to him, because “he used to dress up as a girl with a dress.” He told Westenberg that he wanted to, you know, “do” him (again, Wojtowicz’s description was a lot more graphic).
Let’s Die Happy, Shall We?
Westenberg wasn’t really into the idea. But Wojtowicz told him, “I’m giving you $50,000, right? You’re telling me I’m not gonna get a f*** out of it? You’re out of your f***ing mind!” So, that happened.
Then, as Wojtowicz recalled, Sal came over and wanted to sleep with Bobby, too. Bobby told him no, which led to a fight. At that point, Wojtowicz got out of the shower and said, “Hey, what are you two b***hes arguing about? Hey, what is it with you Bobby? We could all die tomorrow, let’s die happy.”
The Stuff Movies Are Made Of
Something else happened just before the robbery, on the same afternoon that it all went down. The amateur trio went to a movie theater in Times Square to watch a movie. Funnily enough, they went to see the two actors who would end up playing Wojtowicz and Naturale in the movie about their wild day.
They saw The Godfather, which had just come out a few months earlier, in March. The guys were so inspired by the movie that they chose to quote their movie in the ransom note at the bank: “This is an offer you can’t refuse.”
Let the Media Circus Begin
After the movie, they proceeded to the Chase Bank in Brooklyn’s Gravesend area. They walked into the bank, and this time, they knew it was the real deal – no fleeing the scene. They went right up to a bank teller and slipped her a note (“this is an offer you can’t refuse”).
That’s when the heist – one that consumed the city and became one of the biggest media circuses in New York City history – began. That day, that branch’s vault was half empty (or half full, whatever). Still, they had no choice but to go ahead with the robbery.
And Then There Were Two
Wojtowicz and his partners in crime managed to seize $38,000 in cash as well as $175,000 in traveler’s checks, but before they could make a run for it, one of the employees sounded the alarm. The police were on their way. It was then that Westenberg fled the scene.
Wojtowicz and Naturale then took the eight people who were inside the bank and made them their hostages for what would become a 14-hour standoff with the feds. FBI agents were actually a minority in the crowd that formed outside.
His Mom Was in the Crowd
There were also policemen, snipers posted on the surrounding rooftops, a mass of journalists, and probably around 2,000 spectators who wanted to get a piece of the action. Even Wojtowicz’s own mother was part of the crowd that gathered around the Chase bank in the boiling heat of August to watch the heist unfold.
“That was a Brooklyn crowd that night,” one journalist on the scene reported. “It was a full-blown show.” It seemed like Wojtowicz didn’t mind the attention, either. He eagerly jumped into the role of ringleader.
Making It Rain
Some might say he was a favored bank robber, considering he ordered pizza for his hostages and paid the delivery guy with cash from the vault. He even “made it rain” by tossing more stolen money into the cheering crowd outside.
We won’t go so far as to call it Stockholm Syndrome (which was actually based on a bank robbery as well), but Wojtowicz’s hostages started to like the guy in charge. They weren’t scared of him as much as they were simply exhausted.
Hours Passing, Tensions Rising
One of the tellers that day, a woman named Shirley Ball, recalled, “I realized that he was friendly, had a purpose for robbing the bank. He thought he would be in and out.” The only thing was it wasn’t in and out. It took a total of 14 hours.
As the hours dragged on, so did the tension. What may have been some people’s worst day ever was the opportunity of a lifetime for one particular reporter. New York Daily News’ Robert Kappstatter got the interview of a lifetime on August 22, 1972.
One Reporter’s Lucky Day
Robert Kappstatter started his shift at 5 p.m. that evening, a few hours into the robbery. As he recalled, his editor told him, “Start working the story by phone, see what you can get.” And so, Kappstatter called the bank.
Lo and behold, “this guy picks up the phone and says he’s one of the bandits.” That guy was Wojtowicz. So, he started interviewing the robber over the phone, just like that. Kappstatter opened with “So, how’s it going?” and Wojtowicz barked back, “How do you think?”
Even a Great Story Has to Come to an End
“He’s giving these great quotes,” Kappstatter said of that call. He asked Wojtowicz, “Are you afraid of dying? Could you really kill these people?” As Kappstatter was sitting there, on the phone with the robber, he was taking notes, “typing like crazy and my mind is going, ‘Wow, what a story!’”
It was a great story for the reporter, but for the robbers, it was a complicated clusterf*** of ‘what the hell do we do now’ kind of thing. Eventually, the intense standoff ended when the FBI agreed to drive both Wojtowicz and Naturale to Kennedy International Airport and put them on a flight.
RIP Sal Naturale
Obviously, it was just a trick to get them out of the bank and into their custody. But Wojtowicz and Naturale were beyond tired. Once they arrived at the airport, agents were waiting for them. Sadly, Naturale was shot dead (which was that day’s only casualty) and Wojtowicz was arrested.
Wojtowicz was given a 20-year sentence, but he only served five and was released in 1978. As was mentioned before, he got to see himself portrayed by Al Pacino, which was as surreal as it gets.
He Had Some Qualms About Dog Day Afternoon
After threatening the warden with “the biggest prison riot you ever saw,” he was allowed to watch the movie, but in the company of a guard. What did he think of the movie based on his epic day in 1972? Well, he had some notes. In 1975, he decided to write a letter to the culture editor of The New York Times.
Although he described the whole movie as a “very moving experience,” he claimed that the film “did not show the whole truth, and the little it did show was constantly twisted and distorted.”
Carmen Looked “Horrible”
Wojtowicz’s biggest problem with the film was that it “hinted very dramatically that I made some kind of a deal to betray my partner, Sal.” He wrote, “This is not true and there is no human being low enough in this world who would let the FBI kill his partner in order for him to survive.”
Wojtowicz also noted his issues with the actress who played his ex-wife. He felt that the movie made Carmen “look horrible,” but also that it “inferred that I left her and winded up in the arms of a gay man because of her.”
He Did Like Pacino and Sarandon’s Portrayals, Though
That was also “completely untrue,” he wrote. “I feel sorry for the actress for having to play such a horrible role.” All in all, Wojtowicz said only 30% of the film was accurate. Other inaccuracies included the part about his mother.
He said he never spoke to her on the day of the robbery and also revealed that the police refused to let him speak to Carmen. As for positive words, Wojtowicz praised Pacino and Sarandon’s portrayals of himself and Liz Eden – those were accurate roles in his eyes.
A Penny for Your Thoughts?
In 2006, the screenwriter for Dog Day Afternoon, Frank Pierson, said in an interview that when he was writing the screenplay, he tried to visit Wojtowicz in prison multiple times to get more information about him.
But Wojtowicz refused to see Pierson because he said he wasn’t paid enough money for the rights to his story. As it turns out, Hollywood paid Wojtowicz $100,000 to use his story. But reports vary. Some reports claim that he was also granted 1 percent of Dog Day Afternoon’s profits.
What Was Life Like After the Successful Film?
Aside from the few thousand dollars he ended up putting toward Eden’s sex change, Wojtowicz saw very little of that cash, which was actually contested in court up until his death in 2006. Regardless of Wojtowicz’s scruples with the movie, Dog Day Afternoon was a hit with both critics and audiences.
It made back its budget 20 times over and earned six Academy Award nominations (the one win was for its original screenplay). But what happened after the movie, after Wojtowicz got out of prison and started the second act of his life?
Post-prison life didn’t really work out so well for the ex-convict. First of all, he moved in with his mother in New York after being released from prison. His lover, Liz Eden ended up leaving him for someone else before ultimately passing away from AIDS-related pneumonia in 1987.
Wojtowicz spent the rest of his life in New York, making one desperate attempt after another to make a name for himself. At one point, he applied to work as a guard at an actual Chase Bank!
“I’m the Guy From Dog Day Afternoon”
He reportedly declared, “I’m the guy from Dog Day Afternoon, and if I’m guarding your bank, nobody’s going to rob the Dog’s bank.” Believe it or not (sarcasm), the bank declined his job application.
Even more pathetic was his tendency to return to the scene of the crime (the Chase bank) to sell autographs and take photos with civilians. By 2001, Wojtowicz was living on welfare. In 2006, he died of cancer in his mother’s home. He was only 60 years old.