Dog Day Afternoon: The Wild Real-Life Robbery Behind the Movie
Dog Day Afternoon has the kind of premise (“man robs bank for his transgender wife”) that would normally be relegated to some dodgy free streaming site even today, so the fact that it won an Oscar in 1975 tells you just how good and unhinged it is. The real-life robbery that inspired the film, however, gives a whole new meaning to “stranger than fiction.”
It Started With Group Sex
To amp themselves up the night before the robbery, John Wojtowicz (“Sonny Wortzik” in the film), Salvatore Naturile, and Bobby Westenberg (“Stevie”) had various configurations of sex together. It should be noted that, even by Wojtowicz’s own account, Westenberg wasn’t exactly an enthusiastic participant, so his abandonment of the pair the next day is even more understandable. Literally fuck those guys.
They Tried to Rob Other Banks First
The Chase Manhattan was actually the fourth bank the gang tried. Their first attempt was immediately aborted when one of the guys loudly dropped his shotgun, then they ran into a friend of one of their mother’s right before they were about to stick ‘em up, then they crashed into a car while they practiced their getaway.
They Were Inspired By The Godfather
Just before the (fourth attempt at a) robbery, the three men went to see The Godfather and got so hyped up that they incorporated it into their plans, writing “This is an offer you can’t refuse” on their ransom note. They must have been psyched that the stars of that movie ended up being the stars of their movie … the ones who survived, anyway.
Wojtowicz Answered the Phones
In the movie, Sonny orders the bank manager to keep answering the bank’s phone calls as if nothing is wrong, but Wojtowicz claims he was the one who answered them and even approved a loan. He really was a former bank teller, so he knew what to do, but the real-life manager said his employees did it, and Wojtowicz did love to lie.
He Didn’t Get That Much Leeway
In the movie, Sonny is basically given carte blanche by a police force held hostage themselves by the media’s watchful eye. This was partially orchestrated by Wojtowicz, who said, “The more publicity we had, the safer we were,” but he said police didn’t really allow him to talk to his mother -- though she was there -- and they cut the phone lines before he could talk to his first wife.
Wojtowicz Was Pissed About His First Wife’s Portrayal
Wojtowicz felt that the movie made his first wife “the scapegoat for everything that happened” and “inferred that I left her and up in the arms of a gay man because of her,” when in reality, they’d separated two years before he met Elizabeth Eden (“Leon” in the movie). For the record, he said, she was a “beautiful and very loving wife” and he felt “sorry for the actress for having to play such a horrible role.”
Wojtowicz and Eden Had Been in the News Before
Both Sonny and Wojtowicz referred to Leon/Eden as his wife, and they did get married in an obviously non-legal ceremony/protest for gay rights in 1971. In fact, footage of the ceremony was featured on Walter Kronkite’s news show.
Eden Said She Never Loved Him
Despite the ceremony, Eden later told reporters she never loved Wojtowicz and told him so constantly. In fact, soon after she underwent gender confirmation surgery, paid for by Wojtowicz’s fee for the movie rights to his story, she left him for another man. To be fair…
Wojtowicz Didn’t Want Eden to Have Surgery
Wojtowicz wasn’t initially supportive of Eden’s desire for surgery and never acknowledged her as a woman. He only decided to try to get the money together when it became clear her life was at stake when she attempted suicide three days before the robbery, so that explains a lot.
Saving Eden’s Life Might Not Have Been Wojtowicz’s Sole Motive
Wojtowicz may indeed have intended to use part of his cut for Eden’s surgery, but some evidence suggests he planned the robbery to pay off debts to the Gambino crime family. It’s possible they even masterminded the robbery, though you would think they’d do a better job.
Wojtowicz Says He Was Stiffed by the FBI
The movie ends with the assertion that Sonny was sentenced to 25 years in prison, but Wojtowicz was actually sentenced to 20. According to him, it should have been a lot less, but the feds went back on their plea deal. He ended up getting parole after only five years, but still, a deal’s a deal.
And the Filmmakers
Wojtowicz was paid only $7,500 for his story, and nobody felt too bad about that, including his lawyer, who told reporters, “How should I know what it takes to pay off a criminal for his story?” His first wife made out even worse, being paid just $50 and led to believe her estranged husband wouldn’t get paid if she turned it down. The only person who came out on top was Eden, who wisely refused to sign any releases and sued for millions.
The Movie Had Violent Consequences For Wojtowicz
Wojtowicz had to fight to get Dog Day Afternoon shown in the prison where he served his sentence, but it didn’t work out as well as he’d hoped. Because the movie insinuated that he’d “made some kind of a deal to betray my partner,” he claimed he got on some of his fellow inmates’ shit lists, or should we say “shiv lists”?
He Signed Autographs at the Bank
Like most ex-cons, Wojtowicz struggled to find employment post-prison, though he did have the balls to apply at Chase Manhattan, reasoning that “if I'm guarding your bank, nobody's going to rob the Dog's bank.” They somehow turned down that enticing offer, but he still managed to profit off the scene of his crime, selling autographs and photo ops at the bank.
Wojtowicz’s Ultimate Fate
Wojtowicz died in 2006 of cancer, penniless, on welfare, and living with his mother, as he had for decades. Let it be known, kids, that no matter how many Oscar winners get involved, crime really, really doesn’t pay.
Top image: Warner Bros.