He did it for love. John loved Ernie, and Ernie was unhappy. Ernie didn't have the $10,000 he needed for his sex-change operation. He tried suicide. So John went out to get the money. He went to a Chase Manhattan branch in Brooklyn with Sal, Bobby and several guns.
But Bobby bugged out and called the cops, who surrounded the bank in mid-holdup. After a 13-hour siege that brought cheering crowds and a media circus to the streets of Brooklyn, John and Sal tried to make it to Kennedy Airport with their hostages. They failed. The FBI shot Sal dead and captured John.
Maybe you've seen the movie. John saw it. He was doing 15 in the federal pen at Lewisburg Pa., when the movie came out in '75. Warner Bros. had bought his story and filmed it as "Dog Day Afternoon." Classy movie. Six Oscar nominations and Al Pacino starring as John (although they called him Sonny onscreen). So now imagine John in the prison auditorium watching the crime that got him there re-enacted before him. Just John and the guards. Later that night, another showing for the other cons. "Hey, Dog," they say to him, "did you really do that?" Dog becomes his nickname. (They never could pronounce Wojtowicz.) And one night, the guard on the loudspeaker signs off at 11 p.m. with "Good night, Killer, wherever you are." Numerous proud cons claim the honor, but finally the guard tells them, "No, I am talking about the real Killer, the Dog." John Wojtowicz, who has never killed anyone, gloats at them."See, I told you that was me."
But the movie made trouble for the Dog. He thought Pacino did a fabulous job, but he found the script highly inaccurate. "One of the lies they had in the movie, which caused me a lot of problems in the joint, was that they hint that Al Pacino sold his partner out to the FBI, and as a result of that, my life was threatened and my cell was set on fire three times and I was put in protective custody for eight months in solitary confinement and then I was shipped to another prison in Lompoc, California."
And now here is Dog Day in the flesh, narrating the surrealistic soap opera that is his life. He's sitting in a booth in a nondescript restaurant just above Times Square, playing with the table knife. After 6 1/2 years in the federal pen, he is free - but with a string attached. For about a month, he's been living in a federal halfway house that kicks him out at 8 each morning to look for a job. He must land one by October 28, according to the rules, to gain parole. If not, it's back to the joint, possibly for eight more years. The halfway house gathers him back in each 5 p.m. Officially, it's called a community treatment center. It takes up the sixth floor of a fleabag hotel.
John Wojtowicz is a short, plump, feisty man of 33, with a scraggly mustache and chin stubble. He is dressed in ex-con mufti: jeans, cheap jacket, T-shirt showing under his shirt collar. He comes on strong. He looks and sounds like a tough guy from blue-collar Brooklyn. Only the anti-Anita Bryant button on the jacket signals the incredible mass of contradictions harbored inside. None of it seems contradictory to Wojtowicz. He talks about his social life, for instance, as though it were not particularly unusual to have three wives.
First, there's Carmen, living in Brooklyn with their two kids, Dawn and Sean, 10 and 8. In the movie, the wife was shown as fat, sloppy, gross. Another lie, says John. "My wife ain" no ugly lookin' girl, you know. She's cute." But Carmen, he says, has become a woman's libber, which is a problem, because John is a male chauvinist. "I'm an old-fashioned Italian, and I'm the boss," he says.
The second is Ernie. Or the former Ernie. Ernie now prefers to be called Liz, since he got the sex-change operation with money from Warner Bros. (John says he got $15,000: $11,000 he gave to Ernie, $4,000 to Carmen.) "He's one of those guys that has a gender-identity problem, you know," John explains. Liz didn't want to see John when he first got out, but her husband encouraged it. "Liz is married to an Italian guy and lives in the Bronx," says John. "He feels that I have the right to see Liz now. We get along real good, me and the husband."
Then there's George. "George is my old lady from the joint," John says. They met at Lewisburg in 1974 on July 16th, which is, incidentally, Carmen's birthday. They had much in common, since George was also in for robbing a bank and taking hostages. It was a whirlwind courtship. They were married July 31 in the prison yard, by a Jesus Freak. "I believed in making George an honest man," says John. "Half the institution came to the wedding."
To John, the domestic priorities are clear. Though he considers himself married to all three, he wants to live with Carmen and the kids now and take care of them. The two other wives he'll visit now and then. After all, they both have marriages of their own. In fact, George has four children. "My responsibilities to Ernie are over with," John says.But there is jealousy among his wives. "Carmen doesn't like it, but she's not the boss," he says. And Liz asks what he's doing with George because George is black - or half white and half black." But John tells them that if not for George he wouldn't be with them today. George was his jail-house lawyer and George got him out.
Love and sex are of vast importance to John. He says he's an incurable romantic. He had his first gay experience in the Army when he was 21, he says. "And being I'm one of those oversexed guys, I liked it." Gender is immaterial in his constant search for love. "Whether it's a guy or a girl, it doesn't make a difference. It's the person. I believe for somebody to be truly happy in my category - being I'm a bi-sexual - is I need one of each."
So the Dog is out trying to patch up his marriages and find a job. And he's worried. He's got about five weeks left on his job deadline and so far he's had no luck at all. Where has he been looking? Why, banks, of course. "I'd be the world's greatest guard," he says. The bank could proclaim: "Hey, 'Dog Day Afternoon' is guarding our bank. Your money's safer than Fort Knox because nobody's going to touch that place, and anybody that deposits more than $100 in the account gets a personally autographed picture."
But the banks won't hire him. This is sinking in. The weird thing is that he's really qualified to work in a bank. In fact, banking is his only job experience. He was a teller for about eight years. That's where he acquired the knowledge of bank procedures he used in planning the robbery, which almost worked until the cops showed up and ruined the whole plan. He'll take any job he can find, he says, janitor, package deliverer, anything. He treks to employment agencies everyday. Sometimes the agencies send him to interviews, sometimes not. No offers yet. He has about 18 strikes against him. Sometimes people recognize him. They saw him on TV or they saw the movie. Sometimes they ask for his autograph and sometimes they say, "How do we know you won't take use hostage?" But they don't hire him.
Naturally, he doesn't want to go back to jail. Jail was rough even before the movie. John's open homosexuality got him in trouble. "I went to Springfield, Missouri, for psychiatric care once, because I had a nervous breakdown after I was raped," he says.
Also, he is naturally combative. John makes waves everywhere. This is because he is a natural-born leader, he says. He filed a lawsuit when they wouldn't let him share a cell with George. John argued that he had the right to the pursuit of happiness, even in jail. "When you get stepped on, you got to yell," he says.
He also sued Warner Bros., contending that it owed him 2 percent of the gross from "Dog Day Afternoon." John says that the studio agreed to settle for $100,000, but the money was impounded by the New York State Crime Victims Compensation Board, after some of the hostages from the robbery brought suit against John for damages. The way he looks at it, this is unfair, because he feels it was sloppy police work that brought about the hostage-taking. "I didn't put people in danger," he insists. "The cops are the ones that put them in danger by surrounding the place and saying, 'Throw down you guns and come out, or we'll kill you.' The idea is the cops are supposed to let you come out and blow out your brains on the sidewalk."
In John's own eyes, he is the classic little guy, oppressed by larger forces. Driven into a corner, he once committed a desperate act and now, he says, he is being punished harshly for it. "I consider it to be a crime of passion because I was trying to save my wife Ernie's life . . . I think the officials were wrong for making me do all the time they did because I never hurt anybody." He's not sorry for what he did, but he doesn't see it ever happening again. "I don't plan on doing nothing illegal because I want to stay out. Cause I'm not a repeat offender. I haven't been a criminal all my life. Just one act. I'm a regular 9-to-5 guy." He is a religious man who goes to confession, a patriot who considers himself a Goldwater Republican. He has been active in the gay-rights cause, and has strong roots in his community. He is a family man. He is a husband and father. He is an Army veteran. "I'm an average American," Says John Wojtowicz.