New Documentary Tells the Story of the Real-Life Bank Robber Who Inspired 'Dog Day Afternoon'

Gwynne Watkins

Al Pacino has played a vast array of characters over his long and remarkable career. Certainly one of the most memorable is Sonny Wortzik, the Brooklyn bank robber trying to finance his transgender wife’s sex change operation in Dog Day Afternoon. Director Sidney Lumet’s 1975 movie (and Pacino’s character) was based on the true story of John Wojtowicz, whose life, crime, and subsequent notoriety are the subject of the new documentary The Dog.

Directors Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren spent ten years making their film about Wojtowicz, who died of cancer in 2006 at the age of 60. Prior to the 1972 robbery, Wojtowicz was an early gay-rights activist, demonstrating for same-sex marriage at a time when sodomy was a crime and homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder. 

Wojtowicz in his 1972 mugshot

“Now people see he wasn’t a good poster boy for the gay-rights movement when he robbed the bank, but he was an individual who had zero shame about what he was,” Berg told the New York Times for an article about the new film. “Think of what he said about marriage at the time: ‘When I love somebody, I want to marry them.’ People have a real appreciation for that now.’”

Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon

The Dog reveals Wojtowicz to be just as impulsive, egotistical, and idiosyncratic as Pacino’s interpretation of the character on film. He delights in describing the details of the robbery including the irony that he and his conspirators took inspiration from Pacino in The Godfather. (Wojtowicz was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the robbery and eventually paroled after serving 5 years.) After becoming a media celebrity, he returned to the scene of his crime to sign autographs in an “I Robbed This Bank” T-shirt, and put Dog Day Afternoon on his resume when he applied for a job as a security guard. 

Unsurprisingly, Wojtowicz remains a controversial figure among gay-rights advocates, with one journalist telling the Times that his is “an isolated, bizarre story.” However, he did manage to pay for his wife’s gender-reassignment surgery — using the money he received from the film. 

“If I had a dream and in that dream I saw everything that happened, would I still go out and do it?” Wojtowicz says in the trailer for The Dog. “You’re damn right I would still go out and do it!”

The Dog opens on August 8. 

Photo credit: © Drafthouse Films, Ronald Grant Archive