The True Story of Dog Day Afternoon

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.

The Movie

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.

The Standoff

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.

Yes, really.

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.

The Aftermath

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.

I hope you enjoyed reading this free article. I am sorry, but there will be no updates, corrections, or expansions to the content you’ve read. I am currently focusing on my fiction writing career and am no longer writing non-fiction. If you’re interested in seeing what I write, please check out the My Fiction page on this website or visit my Amazon Author Pageon amazon.com. 

Sources:

The Woman Behind the Robbery

The LIFE article that inspired the movie (with pictures)

Real people vs. Actors in Film

John Wojtowicz thoughts on the film

Salvatore Naturile

John Wojtowicz

What Happens When Film Art Seeks to Imitate Real Life

21 thoughts on “The True Story of Dog Day Afternoon

  1. Oh my god, I never ever knew this was the story behind the story. How amazing. Thank you for opening my eyes to this one. Now I want to see this movie again since it’s been too many years to really remember.
    Cool.
    I LOVE Al Pacino.

    • I never knew there was a true story behind the movie until I re-watched it a few months ago. Al Pacino is such an amazing actor, and I wanted to do a blog post on the movie. Imagine my delight when I realized there was a true crime connected to the movie. LOL

    • The movie is available on Netflix streaming, so you could watch it for free. I thought this was both hilarious (but not) and fascinating.

  2. Like Julie, I was unaware of either the movie or the real robbery. Probably wouldn’t enjoy the movie as much as your post. Thanks, Catie.

    • I’m so glad you liked my post. I doubt it was as good as an Al Pacino movie, but I appreciate the compliment. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. on ,
    alandhopewell said:

    I loved the movie, and realized when I read about the actual robbery (in 1978) that I’d heard about it on the news; very funny, sad, unique movie.

    • Well, I feel a bit better knowing you laughed about the movie. I caught myself giggling more than once. I also laughed about the movie version of Bonnie and Clyde’s exploits. I figured maybe it was some sort of mental flaw. LOL

  4. This is one of my favorite movies. I had no idea it was based on a true story. I wonder how the writer went from Dog Day Afternoon to Eddie and the Cruisers? Interesting. I also didn’t realize or maybe forgot that there was a third bank robber involved. Great research on a great movie!

    • How cool that this is one of your favorite movies and you learned something new about it today. I love it when that happens to me.

      Dog Day Afternoon to Eddie and the Cruisers–you got me. But a story is a story, I guess (???).

  5. Such a sweet reason for him to want to rob a bank, but the guy dumps him? That’s just wrong. Now I want to rent the movie. Great review, you really piqued my interest!

    • From what I was able to find, the guy did dump him. If you have Netflix streaming, you can watch Dog Day Afternoon for free. Thanks for stopping by.

  6. I’ve seen a few minutes of the movie but it just didn’t catch my attention. After reading this I’m going to set down and watch it though, that story is just too funny. Speaking of bank robberies though, are you familiar with the north hollywood robbery? Not quite so funny, least not in the same way. Either way, it’s a very moving story when you look into it (I don’t want to ruin any of the good parts)

    • Do watch it, but be warned: it is ponderously slow at times. I totally know why you weren’t hooked in the first few minutes and gave up on it.

      I am glad I watched it because I’d heard about it all my life. The film is interesting because it is almost farcical, but then the ending just snaps it all back into perspective.

      Okay. Now I’m curious about the North Hollywood Robbery. I’ll look that up.

      • 44 minutes the north hollywood shootout is the name of the made for tv movie based on the event. Unfortunately it’s not on netflix, least not last I looked, though I think they have it all on youtube in ten minute intervals.

  7. Great story, Catie. I had no idea this was a true ‘adventure’ for these guys. I’ll have to admit — if someone pulls the air conditioning on me — I’ll agree to most anything. Hubby read your blog over my shoulder and now the movie is on our Net Flix stream for tonight. See what you started:)

    • Sheri, I’m like you about the air conditioning. When I was a kid, I could stay outside all day in August. Now, it makes me physically sick.

      I do hope you and Hubby enjoy Dog Day Afternoon. If you don’t, try out Winter’s Bone, which is also on Netflix. :D

  8. on ,
    Donna Coe-Velleman said:

    I knew the details of the movie, probably because I’m a New Yorker. It was a very good movie and it showed the personal side to a nasty situation.

    • How cool that you knew about this! And how cool that you are a New Yorker. I’ve always wanted to visit, but I’d like to have a native show me the really neat stuff.

      When I wrote this post, I thought I was writing something that was pretty common knowledge. Peoples’ shock and interest has been enjoyable to see.