Reality TV didn’t create the first reality TV star. Long before Snooki strutted her stuff along the Jersey Shore and Kim Kardashian became a household name, a Vietnam veteran by the name of John Wojtowicz parlayed one moment in the spotlight into a lifetime of notoriety.
On a sultry afternoon in August, 1972, Wojtowicz and a friend stormed into a Brooklyn branch of the Chase Manhattan Bank brandishing a shotgun and a machine gun, and demanded money. But the cops showed up before they could get away and, as one account put it, “what should have been an ordinary bank robbery turned into a three-ring circus.” Hundreds showed up to gawk. While his accomplice held seven employees hostage, Wojtowicz – identified on news bulletins as “an admitted homosexual” – did interviews with reporters to explain he was trying to get money for his lover’s sex-change operation. When one former lover showed up, the two kissed at the door of the bank while the crowd mocked them with cries of “Faggot!”
The siege ended after 14 hours, when the FBI shot and killed Wojtowicz’s accomplice. But his fame was just beginning. Three years later, Al Pacino starred as a lightly fictionalized version of him in the Oscar-winning Dog Day Afternoon. By the time Wojtowicz got out of prison in 1978, the movie had become, according to his psychiatrist, “the essence of his life.”
The Dog, a brisk and bracing new documentary opening in select cities this month, shows him visiting the bank after he is released from prison – he signs autographs and entertains passersby.
Married with two children by the end of the 1960s, Wojtowicz abandoned his family and joined the nascent gay rights movement. In late 1971, he and his lover, a preoperative transsexual named Ernie Aron, exchanged vows in a wedding they conducted almost 40 years before it would have been sanctioned by the state. Months later, after Aron had been institutionalized for suicidal tendencies in part because he couldn’t afford the sex-change operation, Wojtowicz hatched his plan to get the cash.
“He is not a hero,” cautions Frank Keraudren, co-director of The Dog with Allison Berg. “This is not Robin Hood. This is like O.J. Simpson riding down the highway.”
Keraudren and Berg conducted their first interview with Wojtowicz in 2002, but it took more than 10 years to finish the film. In part, that was due to Wojtowicz dying of cancer in 2006, but mainly it was because they funded the production themselves. “We’ve worked on social issue docs before, and you could get grant money,” notes Berg. “But you try and tell people you worked on a [film about] an unapologetic bank robber who’s sex-crazed, and not everyone’s throwing you cash.”
Though Wojtowicz had been a spokesman for the Gay Activist Alliance, after the robbery people in the community resented the way they had been tainted by his outlaw behaviour. Not that he cared: From the opening foul-mouthed moments until he utters “Cut!” in the final frame, The Dog captures his abrasive and uncompromising personality. Possessed of an apparently bottomless emotional hunger, Wojtowicz could be altruistic or violently selfish. And he didn’t seem to care much about the truth, either, unless he thought it could help him get sex.
“We sort of gave him the mic,” says Keraudren, speaking about the film the morning after its big-screen premiere at last year’s TIFF. “There are a lot of white lies in there. We took out a million others.”
“You don’t meet many people with zero filter, who just live by their own code – for better or worse,” says Berg. “As filmmakers, you might have a great subject in terms of subject matter – and then you meet people and you’re, like, ‘Okay, this isn’t the best thing on camera, but the story’s very important.’ But John – regardless of the story, you could just hear him talk about a trip to the grocery store, and he’s going to have you rolling on the floor – or pushing your buttons.”
Even toward the end, Wojtowicz refused to admit he was wrong to have robbed the bank and taken hostages. His lover was in pain, after all, and he was just trying to help.
“We’re not trying to say to people, ‘This is the way it should be – go out and rob a bank for your lover.’ But it is pretty incredible,” says Berg. “While we were filming him, we visited with a friend of his, a young guy who was dying of cancer, dying of AIDS, and we saw almost the same thing: By the end, John was almost ready to break him out of the hospital so he could die in peace at home. It’s just what he thought his friend wanted.
“He was going to do it. We thought we were going to be caught up in another situation.”