Appeals Court Ends Four Decades of Lawsuits Over Bank Robber Who Inspired 'Dog Day Afternoon'

The 1975 Oscar-nominated film caused the bank robber who inspired the Sidney Lumet film to seek out a percentage of Warner Bros. royalties.
Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection

On August 22, 1972, a 27-year-old man named John Wojtowicz attempted to rob a Chase Manhattan bank and held several employees hostage for 17 hours. The events of that day were captured in an article for Life magazine and later in the 1975 classic Sidney Lumet film, Dog Day Afternoon, starring Al Pacino.

After the film came out, Wojtowicz, whose attempted robbery was intended to finance a transsexual operation for his lover, wrote a letter to the New York Times, saying he was outraged how filmmakers had misrepresented the truth. He also felt "exploited," saying that Warner Bros. had breached a deal to pay him 1 percent of the profits. He took the studio to court with the help of a fellow inmate named George Heath, his so-called "jail-house" lawyer. Now, nearly four decades after the original bank robbery, a New York appeals court has finally ordered that the litigation must stop.

For his work in helping Wojtowicz get his claimed due, Heath was to be entitled to more than 16 percent of Wojtowicz' take.

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Wojtowicz died in 2006 at the age of 60. Throughout much of Wojtowicz' late life, he was on public assistance. New York law allows the government to recover benefits to a decedent within 10 years of death by making claims upon his or her estate. And so, the Human Resources Administration in New York put a lien on Wojtowicz' property, including the royalties he was getting from Warner Bros.

After Wojtowicz died, this left Heath in the lurch. 

When the government tied up the funds, Heath argued, among other things, that the statute of limitations should exempt the lien and that the distribution of the royalties should be handled differently by Warner Bros. At one point, Heath submitted a motion to have Time Warner held in contempt for failure to pay him his share of royalties.

In 2009, a judge lifted the lien, saying it had been fully satisfied, but Heath was back to court to gain more royalties.

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The final straw came last month when New York's appellate division denied Heath's attempt to get anything more than the 16 2/3 % of 1% of royalties owed to Wojtowicz. The appeals court also decided it had had enough of the Dog Day Afternoon royalties saga. According to the ruling: "Given plaintiff's pattern of continuous and vexatious litigation concerning this subject matter for the past few decades, an injunction barring him from commencing new actions or proceedings seeking royalties from the film is warranted."

Thus ends the aftermath of what happened forty years ago in a Chase bank in Flatbush, New York.

Here's the fascinating letter the letter that Wojtowicz sent the New York Times after seeing the film. He was critical of the film overall, explaining why he felt exploited, and describing some of his legal troubles, such as an inability to get legal papers notarized. But he called Al Pacino's Oscar-nominated performance "out of sight."


Twitter: @eriqgardner

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