The Dog Was Out


Al Pacino may have been the star of Dog Day Afternoon, the film version of John Wojtowicz’s brazen daylight robbery of a Brooklyn bank, but from the opening frame of The Dog, a mesmerizing new documentary about his life, Wojtowicz makes sure the audience knows who the star is now. The Dog, as Wojtowicz wanted to be called, was the center of attention again, and he liked it. “Nobody would ever did what I did,” he says in the doc. “Nobody would ever rob a bank to cut off a guy’s dick to give him a sex change operation. That’s why they made a movie about it.”

We’re gonna get on the plane, fly him to Denmark and get him the sex change operation.

Wojtowicz, who died in 2006, was a Goldwater Republican in 1964, when he was drafted. He had his first gay sexual experience during basic training, he recollects, with a “hillbilly by the name of Wilbur,” but in 1967 John married Carmen Bifulco (“my female wife”), the mother of his two children. The marriage ended on June 20, 1969—eight days before the Stonewall riots erupted in Greenwich Village. He heard the new gay liberation movement’s siren call, which proclaimed, “Anybody can be straight, but it takes somebody special to be gay.”

When the Dog first met Ernest Aron, at a festival honoring St. Anthony of Padua, he was “infatuated,” he said, and “had to have him.” A gay priest married the pair in 1971, and Ernie, who also went by the name Liz Eden, immediately began to beg John for sex change surgery. After the latest in a series of suicide attempts, Ernie was admitted to Kings County Hospital, and when doctors told John that Ernie was “never getting out of here,” John decided he had to rob a bank to save his wife. On August 22, 1972, at 2:50 p.m., the Dog and his two young accomplices, Bobby Westenberg and Sal Naturale, entered a Chase Manhattan Bank on the corner of East Third Street and Avenue P in Brooklyn. Westenberg panicked and fled just moments before the Dog handed a teller a note that read, à la The Godfather, “This is an offer you can’t refuse.” A machine gun was produced and the siege began. John’s demand was simple: “Tell the cops to go to the nuthouse and bring Ernie down here. We’re gonna get on the plane, fly him to Denmark and get him the sex change operation.”

Outside the bank, thousands gathered to witness the spectacle of the NYPD, the FBI, emergency vehicles and, most important, TV news crews, all waiting to see if the Dog would kill the seven hostages he held inside. The news that an “admitted” homosexual was robbing a bank to finance a sex change operation for his wife named Ernie must have produced spit takes all across America. The Republican National Convention was even yanked off the air for live footage of the Brooklyn media circus, where the crowd chanted, “Queer Queer Fag Fag”; pizza was delivered; and John received a series of visitors, including his mother, Ernie and an ex-boyfriend. The siege ended at 3:30 a.m. on the tarmac of JFK International Airport. Wojtowicz, Naturale and the hostages were waiting in a limo for a jet to whisk them away, when an FBI sharpshooter killed Naturale. The Dog was captured.

Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon premiered in 1975, while John was still in prison. He paid for Ernie’s sex change operation with the $7,500 he received for the movie rights to his story, but after Ernie became Liz, she told John she would never see him again. So John “married” his third wife, George Heath, his jailhouse lawyer. Thanks to Heath, the Dog served only five years of his 20-year sentence. Unable to find work after his release (he had actually been a bank teller before the robbery), he moved back home with his parents and lived on welfare. Cashing in on his notoriety, John would pose at the scene of his crime, wearing an “I Robbed This Bank” T-shirt and charging money for pictures and autographs.

Filmmakers Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren, who spent 12 years working on The Dog, saw John as a “unique New York character” who certainly “deserved the film.” John was also clearly invested in it. He clung to the Dog persona until his death, telling the camera, “I’m the bank robber! Fuck Al Pacino! I’m the gay Babe Ruth!”

Photo courtesy of Drafthouse Films