Real Dog Day hero tells his story

by John Wojtowicz

from Jump Cut, no. 15, 1977, pp. 31-32

What follows is an article John Wojtowicz originally sent to the New York Times about his reaction to the film DOG DAY AFTERNOON, a film partly based on his life, and the Times’ interesting rejection letter. Jump Cut has reprinted this article from Gay Sunshine: A Journal of Gay Liberation, No. 29/ 30, Summer/Fall, 1976, ($10 for 12 issues. $15 Canada and overseas. Free to those incarcerated in prisons or mental hospitals. P.O. Box 40397, San Francisco 94140.) Gay Sunshine reviewed DOG DAY AFTERNOON in issue No. 26/27, and Jump Cut reviewed the film in issue No. 11/12.

In May, 1976 John Wojtowicz was transferred to the Federal Correctional Institution at Lompoc, California. where he still is. —Eds.


December 22, 1975

Mr. John S. Wojtowicz
P.O. Box 1000
Federal Penitentiary
Lewisburg, Pennsylvania

Deer John:

I'm very sorry to say no to this after all of our correspondence, but this article just won't work for us. The problem is that I just don't believe you have profoundly come to grips with the motives for your crime, and the complex relationship between art and reality in this instance.


William H. Henan
Arts and Leisure Editor
The New York Times


This is the first newspaper article I have ever written, but it is necessary so you the people can know the truth. On April 23, 1973, I was sentenced to serve 20 years for armed bank robbery even though I made a deal and pleaded guilty. The powers that be did not keep their part of the deal even though I am a first offender. I'm now serving time at the U.S. Maximum Security Fortress at Lewisburg, Pa.

A movie entitled DOG DAY AFTERNOON starring Al Pacino (of THE GODFATHER) was made by Warner Bros. and based on the events of August 22nd and 23rd of 1972 for which I am now serving time. I am presently in the courts with the assistance of Mr. George Heath, another inmate in here who is a jail-house lawyer, because the Movie People (Artists Entertainment Complex. Inc. and Warner Bros.) have violated my contract with them. I have an agreement in writing for 1% of the net profits and a verbal agreement for 2% of the gross from the movie. It seems now that everyone involved is denying this. “Exploitation” is a dirty word, but I have been exploited as well as my family and friends.  

I have had other problems with the movie, and I even had to launch a massive letter writing campaign after the Associate Warden, Mr. D.D. Grey and the Warden, Mr. F.E. Arnold in here both refused to let my movie in here after Warner Bros. had agreed to send it free of charge for all of us to see. I can report now that the outside pressure from both the Gay and straight newspapers was enough to make the officials hare relent and on Friday might, 10/3/75 and also on Sunday afternoon, 10/5/75, we here finally were able to see the movie. I was allowed to see a special preview of it on Friday afternoon, 10/3/75 all alone with the exception of a guard being there. It was a very moving experience.

The movie. DOG DAY AFTERNOON, contains everything from laughter, tears, love, hate, devotion, religion, to hope, drama, and thrills. The reason I call it a ”?” is because it leaves so much out and so many unanswered questions. What you are about to read are my own personal comments and feelings even though they may result in the movie losing money. They must be made.

The main reason I did what I did on 8/22-23/72 is never explained in the movie, and instead you the viewer are left with many questions. I did what a man has to do in order to save the life of someone I loved a great deal. His name was Ernest Aron (now known as Ms. Liz Debbie Eden) and he was Gay. He wanted to be a woman through the process of a sex-change operation and thus was labeled by doctors as a Gender Identity Problem. He felt he was a woman trapped in a man’s body. This caused him untold pain and problems which accounted for his many suicide attempts. I met him in 1971 at an Italian Bazaar in N.Y.C. after two years of separation from my female wife, Carmen, and two children.  

Ernest and I were married in Greenwich Village in N.Y.C. on 12/4/71 in a Roman Catholic ceremony. We had our ups and downs as most couples do, and I tried my best to get him the money he needed for his sex change operation he so badly needed. I was unable to obtain the funds for his birthday on 8/19/72 and so, on Sunday, 8/29, he attempted suicide while I was at of the house. He died a clinical death in the hospital but was revived. While I went to get his clothes, he was declared mentally sick and sent to the Psychiatric Ward of Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, NY. I went to see hin and I tried to obtain his release on 8/21, but was told he would not be released and would stay there for a long time until he was cured.

Soon 8/22/75, along with two others, I began what I felt was necessary to save the life of someone I truly and deeply loved. No monetary value can be placed on a human life, and as it says in the Bible - “No greater love both a man then to lie down his life for another.”

I regret the things that happened, but most of all that my friend, Sal Naturale, who was only 18 years old was murdered by the F.B.I.. It was not necessary for then to murder him, because he had been immobilized and unable to do anything, but yet the F.B.I. murdered him before my eyes. I was also immobilized and unable to do anything. The movie never shows this as it truly happened, as it does with so many other scenes in it. I estimate the movie to be only 30% true, even though it states - “This movie is based on a true incident that occurred in Brooklyn, N.Y. on 8/22/72.” All through the movie they take facts that were true but then present them differently. For example: It is true that the third person involved with us did panic and fled the bank at the beginning, but not as they have him doing it in one of the comical scenes, which are so rampant throughout the movie.

They have a scene with my mother and I outside   of the bank talking to each other, but in real life we never did talk, and I never went out to see her even though she was there. A third scene shows me speaking to my female wife, Carmen, on the telephone. (The actress who portrays her in the movie is an ugly and greasy looking women with a big mouth, when in real life my wife is beautiful and very loving wife.) I did try to call her, but the F.B.I. cut the phone lines and air conditioning before I could get to speak to her on the line. I did not like the horrible way they tried to make her the blame or the scapegoat for everything that happened, especially because of the Gay aspects involved.

Now to one of the most despicable parts of the film. In it they hint very dramatically that I made some kind of a deal to betray my partner, Sal. It hurt me that the same F.B.I. who cold-bloodedly killed an 18-year-old boy can be depicted as having me help then. This is not true and there is no human being low enough in this world who would let the F.B.I. kill his partner in order for him to survive. It can be labeled as just Hollywood trying to sell a movie or just to increase the drama, but I call it sick.

Many of the men in here thought the movie was a good comedy, but most were outraged at how they misrepresented the truth and invented things that were so despicable. I even had some problems as a result of it, especially the part they invented that hinted of a deal with the F.B.I..

Now for a more pleasant side; the directing by Mr. Sidney Lumet was fantastic. The cast did an outstanding and monumental job as a whole. There are only two exceptions to this. First, the actress playing my wife, Carmen, made her look horrible and inferred that I left her and winded up in the arms of a Gay man because of her. This is completely untrue, and I feel sorry for the actress for having to play such a horrible role. Second, the actress playing my mother overdid her role, especially the overprotective Mother type baloney in it. Some of what they both said, as well as the actor portraying my lover, Ernest (called Leon in the movie) were true statements of facts, but did not really happen in the real life event as such,

Al Pacino’s performance has to be called “out of sight” and the best he’s ever done. I feel he deserves the Academy Award for Best Male Actor for his unbelievable performance. For almost two hours he was just fantastic. He made me laugh, cry, sweat, and feel uncomfortable at times all in one movie. His characterization was flawless.

I was very touched and cried in the most moving scene in the entire movie. the one in which he dictates my last will and testament. During this memorable scene over 1,300 men in here were completely silent, and you could hear a pin drop. For an hour and a half previously everyone was laughing, but then it all stopped, and the truth and stark realism was finally presented in one of the most moving scenes I've ever seen in a motion picture.

Chris Sarandon who portrays my male lover in the movie also deserves the Academy Award for Best Male Supporting Actor. It was his film debut and he was too much for words. He had to portray the widest range of emotions but do it in the right way. I feel he did it perfectly. If in real life Ernie had said those things and done those actions, he would have done them exactly as Chris did them. In the telephone scene between Pacino and himself his performance was unfathomable and a tribute to his mastery of an unbelievably difficult role. I was moved to tears by it because the realism was there and so professionally done.

My feelings over all on the movie were that it was a good comedy, but I did not think it was funny because it was about me and my loved ones. I felt the movie was in essence a piece of garbage. It did not show the whole truth, and the little it did show was constantly twisted and distorted. So it left you, the viewer with so many unanswered questions. I fault the screen writer, Mr. Frank Pierson, for not going into a more explanatory and deeper characterization of the people involved. But Hollywood wants to make money, and if sacrificing the truth or exploiting the lives of real people is the way to make money, then that’s what they do.

I feel deeply hurt by the movie, and I hope that you the reader will remember the above if you have seen the movie or are about to see it. I have taken the movie people to court for the exploitation and for their breach of contract. But the battle will be a long and hard one, as will the one against the book people (Delacorte Press of N.Y. and Dell Publishing Co., Inc. and Patrick Mann, author of the hard cover and also the paperback entitled Dog Day Afternoon).

It is not easy for me or my loved ones because of my imprisonment, but I am determined to do what is right as God gives me the light to see that right. Ever since I arrived here at the U.S. Penitentiary, Lewisburg, Pa., I have been treated as a “Second Class Inmate” and denied the same rights that other inmates in here are enjoying. This is because of the homosexual motive and implications of my crime. I have been arbitrarily discriminated against and harassed by the officials here. I have complained repeatedly and also filed administrative remedies to the Warden, Regional Director, and Assistant Director, but I still fail to obtain relief. I am now in the courts over this.

Further, at the present time I cannot even get legal papers notarized by the officials here to send the courts because my jail-house lawyer, Mr. George Heath’s name is on then. Their refusal to notarize these legal papers is another violation of my rights in here. At one time they even refused to let me do this article for the New York Times, but after pressure from the Washington Post, they relented, and so now I am doing this article.

There is a prayer that the Alcoholics Anonymous have in here that I try to live by, and it goes like this: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”