50 years ago today, John Wojtowicz robbed a Brooklyn branch of Chase Manhattan Bank, taking hostages and making history. The botched robbery was immortalized in 1975 with Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon. Starring Al Pacino as Wojtowicz, the gritty film — and the crime that inspired it — became a stand-in for the dirty, urban depression of the 1970s.
But what was the real story?
“I’m the bank robber — f*** Al Pacino!” John Wojtowicz boasts in The Dog, a 2013 documentary examining the true story behind the classic heist film. When the messy crime drama starring Pacino premiered in 1975, it cemented Wojtowicz’s real-life legacy as a bisexual, romantic criminal mind. But the true story of Wojtowicz is even crazier.
John Wojtowicz, of Polish and Italian ancestry, was born in 1945 and raised in Brooklyn, New York City. He served in the Vietnam War and had his first gay experiences during basic training. After coming home, Wojtowicz married a woman, Carmen Bifulco, and the couple had two children. In 1969, he left the family to pursue new relationships.
John Wojtowicz joined the Gay Liberation movement that was burgeoning in the city’s Village neighborhood. In 1971, he met Liz Eden, a transgender woman, and was instantly infatuated. At the time, Liz went by the name Ernest Aron; Wojtowicz called her Ernie. The two married later that year in a lavish ceremony: Eden wore a dress and the bridesmaids were in drag. At the time, such a public ritual was rare for any gay couple so the special wedding was an auspicious event. But Eden remained depressed, and increasingly suicidal, throughout their first year of marriage. She longed for gender reassignment surgery — something she and Wojtowicz could not afford.
The Bank Robbery
Following a suicide attempt and violent clash with her husband, Liz Eden was institutionalized in 1972. Soon after, John Wojtowicz enlisted the help of two friends — Salvatore “Sal” Naturale and Bobby Westenberg — to rob a Chase Manhattan bank. Being a former bank teller himself, Wojtowicz expected to pull the plot of seamlessly. But he was very, very wrong.
As soon as the bank robbery got underway, Bobby Westenberg fled the scene. One man down, John Wojtowicz and Sal Naturale abandoned their initial plan and took seven of the bank employees hostage for 14 hours. Shocking live footage, in addition to colorful photos from Eden and Wojtowicz’s wedding, dominated the media coverage as the situation at the Chase Manhattan bank spiraled into a non-stop news frenzy.
At one point, John Wojtowicz emerged from the bank and emotionally demanded to speak to Liz Eden. The cops, surprisingly, obliged and fetched Eden from the mental hospital she was confined. And like it is portrayed in Dog Day Afternoon, Wojtowicz’s lover (played by Chris Sarandon) did show up to the bank, disheveled, in a hospital robe.
Eventually, John Wojtowicz, Sal Naturale, and the hostages were all transported to JFK International Airport, where the robbers were under the impression that they were boarding a getaway plane. But the FBI agent who drove the car shot suddenly shot, and killed, Naturale with a concealed pistol. It was then that Wojtowicz finally surrendered.
After ‘Dog Day Afternoon’
When Dog Day Afternoon premiered in 1975, it was advertised as being based on a true story. Screenwriter Frank Pierson wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay utilizing “The Boys in the Bank,” P. F. Kluge’s Life magazine article on the crime, as its source material. A-lister Al Pacino, fresh off his fame Godfather fame, would play Sonny Wortzik, the fiery antihero inspired directly by Wojtowicz. And though Wojtowicz would later complain to The New York Times over inaccuracies within the film, Sidney Lumet’s darkly psychological take on the bungled debacle was a Hollywood hit.
Wojtowicz was imprisoned at the time of Dog Day Afternoon‘s release, and the filmmakers arranged for him to receive $7,500, plus 1% of the film’s net profits. (Wojtowicz later sued Warner Bros. and earned an additional $100,000.) That money was used, finally, for Liz Eden’s sex-change operation: the mission which had first inspired Wojtowicz’s twisted quest. However, despite the belated triumph, the couple split acrimoniously.
Tragically, Eden died of AIDS in 1987. She was just 41 years old.
Meanwhile, Wojtowicz served five years of his 20-year sentence in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary though he returned to prison twice more during the ’80s, due to parole violations. Afterwards, Wojtowicz attempted to cash in on his Dog Day fame by publicizing his criminal identity. But he never quite succeeded in achieving any enduring celebrity. Wojtowicz died of cancer in 2006, at the age of 60. At the time, he was on welfare and living with his mother in Brooklyn.
To learn more about Wojtowicz’s life, check out The Dog. The documentary, splicing together archival footage with new interviews, is now streaming for free on Tubi, Vudu, and Pluto TV. Pacino’s masterful performance in Dog Day Afternoon portrayed Wojtowicz’s as a nervous, hyper-masculine New Yorker in over his head — a fascinating characterization — but The Dog goes further to capture Wojtowicz’s unyielding bravado. Seriously, you’ve got to listen to this guy talk about his renegade, sex-crazed past… he does not hold back.
Editor’s Note: A version of this story was originally published on March 8, 2021.