Littlejohn, the ‘Dog Day’ Bank Robber Learns Moviemaking, Like Crime, Does Not Pay
September 29, 1972
They don’t look like the other couples holding hands in the visitor’s room at Lewisburg Penitentiary. At 127 pounds, he looks boyish sitting hunched-up cross-legged in tan chino pants, gesturing with a cheese sandwich to the reporter. She looks coquettish, daintily draped over his shoulder despite her 238 pounds. Here in this softly sunlit room in Pennsylvania, could anyone sense the recklessness that has ruined their lives or the vulnerability to show-biz exploitation which they share?
They are John Wojtowicz, alias Littlejohn Basso, the gay bank robber, and his wife Carmen. John is nearly resigned to serving his full term as the prison’s gay whipping boy; Carmen’s meager life is uncomforted by belittling portrayals of her in a book and movie for which she was paid $50.
The movie is Dog Day Afternoon, a tale of abduction, bisexuality, transsexualism, armed robbery, and death. Even if it doesn’t come to match the runaway box office receipts of Jaws, it may chew up a Tommy or two. Mixing accounts of those actually involved and a bit of artistic license, it takes us inside the bank, and, to some extent, inside the bandits’ heads. It shows an uneasy camaraderie between the hostages and Wojtowicz, whom Pacino plays as a tender-hearted loser caught between physical and mental forces beyond his understanding or control. As a result, Dog Day Afternoon is like other Robinson — Cagney — Bogart gangster Films Warner Brothers has given us: you feel sorry for the bad guy.
Interviewing the bad guy last week, one does feel a little sorry for him. This is Littlejohn’s first interview in three years, secretly and more carefully arranged than the clumsy stickup because prisoners aren’t allowed to meet the press. Especially an openly gay inmate doing a 20-year stretch in a maximum security fortress like Lewisburg where, after Jimmy Hoffa checked out, Littlejohn became its most pointed-at prisoner. Even among killers and con men, a kind of glamorous visibility attaches to an inmate with a story like his. You remember it: three years ago on a 97-degree day in August, the news flashed that robbers were cornered holding up a Chase Manhattan branch in Flatbush. Battalions of police enclosed the scene, the media and thousands of onlookers swarmed in to watch while negotiations dragged on to free the nine hostages. Suddenly the drama took a high bounce when it was learned that the two desperadoes inside were gay, one of them Littlejohn, who said he needed money to finance a sex change for his male “wife” named Ernie. While he already had a heterosexual wife and two children (so did Ernie, it later developed), Ernie had become his second wife in an elaborate mock wedding. Now the second wife was delivered to the scene, a sepulchral figure in a hospital gown, unsteady from a suicide attempt two days before. Fourteen hours later, the two robbers wrapped themselves in hostages and were driven to JFK, where, in a scuffle under the wing of a jet, Wojtowicz was captured and his accomplice, Sal, was shot dead through the heart.
John’s manner is direct but soft-spoken, even oddly respectful of the reporter whom he addresses as Mister, though we’ve had a half a dozen phone conversations and he’s aware his wife and I have developed an easy familiarity during a five-hour drive from New York the night before. (“Did you two make it?” he asked me apparently more curious than concerned.)
Can you see the film here?
They finally said okay. I’ve seen the script, y’know
Does it follow the facts?
Some stuff was left out. Like our plan was to leave the bank by 3:25 to get over to King’s County Hospital pretty quick and get Ernie out. They were holding on to him and visiting hours were over by four o’clock.
You were just going to take him by force?
If necessary. If I didn’t come out with him in 10 minutes, Sal was coming in with guns.
In the car, Carmen had said she noticed a change in John’s attire just before the robbery. He started wearing “gorgeous outfits, like purple velvet pants and lavender shirts to match.”
Pacino wore crummy clothes. Did you?
Naw, that’s not right. I wore a black iridescent sharkskin suit with a red and black tie. I ran up $1500 on my BankAmericard to get all the stuff together, the guns and everything. Sal had on a gray pinstripe with a handkerchief in the pocket. We all had mirror sunglasses for the getaway. We thought about glue-on mustaches but it was too much. In the script they got me carrying the 12-gauge Mauser shotgun in a long flower box but actually we used one of them giant boxes of Wrigley chewing gum.
Wouldn’t that attract attention?
Sure, but what the hell.
(Robert Barrett, the bank manager, has a different recollection. “Yes, they were dressed like a pair of Frank Nitty’s but there was no Wrigley box. Just a brown paper-wrapped thing.” Later Carmen explains, “He just gets carried away. He believes those dumb stories himself.”)
What about all that phone calling into and out of the bank?
Well, before the cops discovered us, we had to make it look normal if anyone phoned in. Since I used to be a teller, when the phone rang, I answered it and gave them what they wanted. “Y’know, credit information, balances. The real thing. I OK’d a loan I shouldn’t have though, someone with a long Polack name — one of my people — and the manager, hollered at me.
(“The girls took the calls,” says Barrett.)
John, would you really have pulled the trigger on those hostages?
Me and Sal and Bobby, we talked it over the night before. The decision was not to waste anybody.
But people had to think you would use those guns.
The decision was not to waste anybody.
Could you kill someone?
If I had to.
Could you kill me?
Littlejohn pauses, lowers his chin, and gazes at me with big brown eyes that have for some time won hearts of all genders. Tender and macho at the same time, it is oddly affecting.
Though he’s been vigorously omnisexual since childhood, his open gayness dates from the early days of the Gay Activists Alliance in 1970 when he was a visible and somewhat controversial irregular. “All you had to do to get a laugh,” recollects someone who knew him then, “was mention Littlejohn Basso’s name.”
Why were you offering to exchange hostages for members of the press?
I told them we’d give ’em one hostage for Chris Borgen, two for Jim Jensen. They sez, nothin’ doing. We’ll give you two priests and a rabbi.
The more publicity we got, the safer we were. We knew they were coming in to blow us away. But they wouldn’t if we had reporters inside. They wouldn’t dare.
You mean they would have just charged in at you like Attica?
Listen, when John Lindsay phoned, I put Sal on one extension, the manager on another, and one of the girls on a third. He sez, “Hello, is this the bank robber?” I sez, “Yah, this is the bank robber.” He sez, “You got five minutes to come out with your hands up or we’re coming in there shooting.” I sez, “Hey, wait a minute. What about all these hostages here. Somebody could get hurt like that.” He sez, “We don’t care about the hostages. Drop your ammunition or we’ll go through all of them to get to you.” Well the manager hears that and he drops the phone and the girl gets sick and starts crying. I hang up. So then I sez to the manager, “Look, we got a problem here. I ain’t gonna tell the women about this. You gotta do it.” So he sits them all down and says. “All right, ladies, in a few minutes they’re coming through that door and we’ll all be dead.”
How’d they take it?
Well, the manager asks me if he can have a gun. He sez, “You got one for me? If I’m going to go, I’d like to take one of them cops with me.” One of the girls wants a gun, too, so we show her how to use it.
John Lindsay, on TV assignment in Moscow, was unavailable for comment. At presstime, Wojtowicz admitted playfully, “Well, it was his assistant. Sometimes the parts I can’t remember I make up.”
(“He tells a beautiful story,” says Barrett. “Maybe he should have written the screenplay.”)
Littlejohn’s hot temper and sly naivete seem to have combined with poor advisers or no advisers at all to spoil his one shot at a break. Three months after the robbery, he sold the movie and book rights to Artists Entertainment Complex for $7500. (Putting that into some context, Lenny Bruce’s heirs will probably make between $250,000 and $400,000 from the film Lenny.) “If $7500 seems low now,” says Martin Bregman, AEC’s president and the film’s producer, “you must remember we were only speculating that we could make a movie. It was later we were able to sell the package to Warner Brothers.”
Apparently Littlejohn made the deal without professional advice and while in an anguished state of mind. Mark Landsman, his court-appointed attorney who plea-bargained the 20-year sentence (John was broke), retained $3500 of the $7500 with Wojtowicz’s approval, “but I was just a letter carrier on the movie deal,” says Landsman. Did he give John any wise counsel or see to it the contract held water? “To be perfectly frank,” says Landsman, “I didn’t want to get involved. How should I know what it takes to pay off a criminal for his story?”
It has been widely reported that Wojtowicz owns 1 per cent of the net profits of the film. He does not. Asked for confirmation, Warner Brothers, and Bregman, who is Al Pacino’s agent, searched their files and report that no such contract exists.
Pressed for a statement, he said, “All right, look, if Dog Day does as well as Serpico (his last film which grossed $22-$23 million). I’ll give Wojtowicz $25,000.”
“Can I print that?”
“Print that,” said Bregman.
It was two days before the premiere and he was understandably nonplussed. “You’ve made me feel very guilty. If the picture makes any profit at all, I’ll see he’s taken care of. If we get fat, some of the fat will flow in his direction. A job, an apartment, something.”
Carmen Wojtowicz has fared even less well. Believing the $7500 deal for John’s “defense fund” depended partly on her cooperation, she says, she signed a release to her rights in a West 4th Street book store on the back of Randy Wicker’s briefcase, standing up. (Wicker, then a writer for a gay newspaper, The Advocate, was acting as liaison for AEC.) Later Carmen gave him a tape recorded account of her experience during the robbery, and her recollections of life with Littlejohn, for which Wicker paid her $50. “I got a little red raincoat for my daughter,” she says, “and some new kitchen curtains.”
Warner Brothers may have been covering their bets this July when they asked her to film a “promotional documentary” to plug the movie on TV. “Six hundred dollars is what people usually get,” she says Warners rep Bardwell Jones, told her, ”but promise me you won’t go telling anyone.” Her counteroffer of $1500 was snapped up. Three days later, she left tor Lewisburg at 8 a.m. in a Warner Brothers limousine. There, she secured John’s blessing on the project without anyone’s yet seeing the 500-word release it entailed. She says Jones told her he forgot to provide it. When I phoned him last week, he seemed agitated and refused to comment.
A careful reading of the release shows that, while it does not deliver Carmen into slavery, it considerably weakens any potential action by her against the studio. As does her film footage, sitting in a vault somewhere.
When Carmen saw Dog Day Afternoon, she wept. “Am I that repulsive?” she asked. “Is my apartment as awful as that girl’s was?”
Carmen crash-dieted to 150 pounds for her wedding in October 1967, “but I was weak and miserable,” she recalls, and the weight began to climb again. “John has always said he likes me this way,” she adds (he agrees). Sometimes loud but never strong, she has adjusted her life to child raising, occasional dating (“Did you know some men are absolutely weird for, y’know, big girls?”), and waiting for John to come home.
Dell’s “novel” would appear to assume she has no feelings whatever. Tina, the wife, is referred to as “a fat cunt,” “a no-good pusbag,” “guinea broad” with a “lardhead’s brain.” One passage reads, “Tina had been one cute cunt in those days… you could still see the cow’s shape. Nowadays there was nothing to see but acres of soft, drippy meat. Her tits hung down—”…
“It’s a matter of First Amendment free speech,” says H. Miles Jaffe, a lawyer whose firm withdrew from representing John and Carmen last spring. “Certain landmark court decisions say that, in a way, we all live our lives in the public domain. Then, of course, the Wojtowicz’s did sign some ‘sort of’ releases.”
“Maybe,” says Carmen in a small voice, over tea in her tidy kitchen last week. “Maybe they’re trying to screw us because we’re just little people.” She and her two children receive $175 in welfare every two weeks and she pays $150 rent to her father for a four-room apartment in his aluminum-sided, three-family house in East New York. She’s a Christmastime Avon Lady and to help with the kid’s clothes, this summer she worked the 8 to 2 a.m. shift at Carvel twice a week for $24 until welfare found out and started deducting it back, $25 per check.
The children sleep in an alcove without windows which has been cheered by new mattresses and playroom wallpaper put up chest high with Scotch tape. They have their father’s eyes and irrepressible nature that often confounds their mother. “I holler at them and pound them,” she says, “but they’re good kids. They just need Johnny more. So do I.”
Littlejohn won’t be with them before 1979 when he is first eligible for parole. He is a lure for rape attempts (one successful, he says) and, partly to defend himself against this, has paired up with another prisoner. “Cool it,” he says, smiling evenly, making me think I’m prying too deeply until I realize a guard is passing close, and as a “friend” I shouldn’t have a notebook.
It sounds like your hostages were pretty brave people, right?
Yeah, all except the bank’s security guard. He got right down on his knees and begged for his life: “Oh please, PLEASE don’t kill me — I don’t want to die!”
(“True,” says the bank manager sadly. “He was six feet, 24-years-old, and a kind of black belt type.”)
How about yourself? Weren’t you scared?
I was too busy to be scared.
(“Well, he was often very excited,” says Barrett, whose own great bravery is understated in the film. “We had to keep saying, ‘Calm down, John, calm down.’ When one of the guns went off by mistake,” he continues, “it blasted a hole in the floor and we all jumped 10 feet. So John announced to us, ‘Y’know, I’ve had to take a shit for three days and I think this thing drove it up farther.’ ”)
John, why didn’t you bother about disguises or fingerprints?
I figured I didn’t have long to live anyway. Cancer. The important thing was to save Ernie’s life.
(“Yes, he kept saying, ‘I’m a dead man anyway,’ ” remembers Barrett, but John’s intestinal lumps later proved benign. “He was obviously concerned about Ernie: ‘How do you like this thing?’ he said several times. ‘What I’m doing for her, and the silly bitch won’t even come in here and talk to me!’ “)
John, why did you do it? You threatened to shoot nine people to get money for Ernie, who, you’ve said, only loved you half as much?
I loved him enough for the both of us (Carmen begins to study her lap.) That’s why I did what I did.
Now that Ernie’s had the sex change, do you love Liz Eden? (her new name)
I guess not. I never see her no more.
Does she seem like a woman to you?
Naw, she’s still a man.
After $15,000 worth of plastic surgery, silicone injections, implantation, and dermabrasion, Liz at 29 is a real woman standing 5-foot-10, 38-27-38. With $1000 worth of work at the chin, she can throw away her Track II razor blades forever. Over a London broil on Eighth Avenue the other night, looking a bit like Dolores Del Rio in a red halter and tiger-lady nails held on by Crazy Glue, Liz was feeling good about the modest settlement she made with Warner Brothers in a million dollar injunction against the movie. Another $2 million action against the book is pending. She was smarter than Carmen and turned down $3500 for the documentary.
“I may announce plans at the premiere to marry Tony,” she says, her eyes shining, her built-up cheekbones enough to make Hepburn weep. Tony, she explains, is 17, gorgeous, learning how to repair air conditioners, and very hot in bed.
“Then do I take it you don’t love Littlejohn anymore?”
“Never did,” she replies, slicing her meat into 20 bitesize pieces. “I must have told him a thousand times.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 24, 2020