Welcome to Freaky Friday. Today, I have a true crime topic that was the basis of an Academy Award winning movie. We’re going to talk about the real life events that inspired Dog Day Afternoon.
Dog Day Afternoon (1975) starred Al Pacino and John Cazale and was directed by Sidney Lumet.
Pacino and Cazale had worked together in both The Godfather and The Godfather II. Lumet was known for directing such classics as 12 Angry Men and A Long Day’s Journey into Night. In 2005, he was awarded an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement.
I’m saying all this to say that Dog Day Afternoon was a big deal. The acting was good. The directing was good. It’s intense, funny, and a little shocking. I suspect it was very shocking in 1975.
So what’s it about?
Dog Day Afternoon is about three dudes who decide to rob a Brooklyn bank at closing time on a hot summer day. One of the dudes loses his nerve and runs off before the robbery even begins.
It goes downhill from there. It ends up with the bank robbers holding the bank employees hostage in a standoff with the police. For hours and hours.
Watch the trailer:
Based on a True Story
It surprised me to learn that the events in this movie really happened.
The movie was based on a Life magazine article written by P. F. Kluge. The article ran in the September 1972 issue of Life magazine and is titled “The Boys in the Bank.” It can be found online pretty easily.
[Fun Factoid: P.F. Kluge also wrote the novel on which the movie Eddie and Cruisers was based.]
The Real Robbery
The names of the bank robbers were John Stanley Wojtowicz (played by Al Pacino) and Salvatore Naturile (played by John Cazale). The dude who ran off before the robbery started was named Robert Westenberg.
On August 22, 1972, these guys robbed a branch of the Chase Manhattan Bank located on the corner of East Third Street and Avenue P in the Gravesend neighborhood of Brooklyn.
There wasn’t as much money as the robbers had hoped for–something like $37,000 in cash and $175,000 in traveler’s checks. Despite that, things went smoothly until the phone rang. The bank manager gave the caller a cryptic message, which the caller correctly identified as a cry for help and called the authorities.
This call for help summoned approximately two hundred police officers and FBI agents, plus newspaper people and curious onlookers. The robbers, who didn’t want to just give up, were trapped in the bank. The bank employees were caught in the middle as hostages.
The standoff dragged on twelve hours. In August. With no air conditioning. The bank did have air conditioning, but it was disabled by the authorities to speed the robbers’ surrender.
The Robbers and the Hostages
The robbers and their hostages developed a weird rapport.
Teller Shirley Ball said the robbers, especially Wojtowicz, were very entertaining. She liked them although they told the bank employees they’d kill them if they had to.
Bank robber John Wojtowicz shared his thoughts about the irony of the night’s events with bank manager Robert Barrett. Barrett said he’d had more laughs that night than he had in years.
The robbers and the hostages ordered pizza. The bank manager, who was a diabetic, was allowed to leave to get checked by a doctor. Although authorities offered to let him escape to the hospital, he went back inside the bank so as not to abandon his employees.
The Motive for the Robbery
Eventually, the reason for the robbery came out. If you’ve seen the movie, you know what it was.
After his first marriage ended, John Wojtowicz got involved with a transvestite man named Ernest Aron. The two were married in a ceremony in Greenwich Village on December 4, 1971.
Aron wanted to have a sex change operation. His unhappiness over not being able to afford the operation caused problems between he and Wojtowicz. Wojtowicz began to plan the bank robbery.
The weekend before the robbery, Wojtowicz and Aron argued. Aron took an overdose of barbituates and was admitted to the hospital.
The ultimate hope for the robbery was for Aron to be able to have his sex change operation, for John’s ex-wife and children to be cared for, and for John to have financial freedom.
The End Result
Around 3:00 a.m., the FBI agreed to chauffeur the robbers and their hostages to Kennedy Airport.
This was the plan: from Kennedy airport, the whole entourage would fly to several foreign airports. At each airpot, a hostage would be released until there were no hostages left. The bank robbers would then depart to an undisclosed destination to enjoy their earnings.
What actually happened was that the group was taken to Kennedy Airport. There, Sal Naturile was shot and killed by an FBI agent. I suspect this happened because Sal was less likely to surrender without a fight.
With Naturile dead, John Wojtowicz surrendered. The hostages escaped onto the tarmac.
John Wojtowicz was sentenced to twenty years at Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. He served six years of this sentence.
While in prison, Wojtowicz sold his story rights to the people who made Dog Day Afternoon. He used this money to help Ernest Aron have his sex change operation.
Ernest Aron became Elizabeth Debbie Eden–also known as Liz. After the sex change operation, Liz dumped John. In 1987, Liz died of AIDS-related pneumonia.
By 1978, John Wojtowicz was out of the pen. In 1986, he violated his parole and was rearrested.
John Wojtowicz died of cancer at the age of 60 (in 2006). He was living at his mother’s home.
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