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Man recalls time with famous bank robber

TAMPA — When “Dog Day Afternoon” ends, John Miller’s story begins.

“Dog Day Afternoon” is the Academy Award-winning film released in 1975 starring Al Pacino as a homosexual who attempts to rob a Brooklyn bank to pay for his husband’s sex-reassignment surgery.

The movie is based on the real life story of Brooklyn bank robber John Wojtowicz, who served six years for his crime and was released from prison in 1978.

Four years later, Miller and Wojtowicz — a gay polygamist, Miller said — started a relationship that lasted until Miller moved to Tampa in 1990. Wojtowicz died of cancer in January 2006.

“John was a troubled and complicated man,” said Miller, 62, by phone from Palm Springs, California, where he is attending to personal business. “Did I really know him? I did more than the public did, but not as good as I should have considering how much time we spent together. He kept a lot about himself locked inside.”

A new documentary, “The Dog,” attempts to unlock Wojtowicz. It will be screened 7:30 p.m. Sept. 24 at freeFall Theatre in St. Petersburg by the Tampa International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. Information is available at www.tiglff.com.

Miller does not appear in the film but is credited as providing background on the many sides of his famous ex — romantic, gay rights activist, mama’s boy, pervert, sociopath and bank robber.

“The film does a wonderful job of capturing who John was,” Miller said. “By that I mean they don’t nail him down at all because there is no way to do that.”

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Miller said Wojtowicz would shower him with gifts including diamonds and introduce him to friends as a “girlfriend or future fiancée.” Yet Miller knew he was neither the top nor only love interest.

Nor was George Heath, identified in the documentary “The Dog” as Wojtowicz’ post-prison husband.

“Lizzie was his number one,” Miller said. “John was a gay polygamist, but it was all about Lizzie. He loved her and was obsessed. The rest of us were just a distraction because she would not have him after he got out of prison.”

“Lizzie” is the late Elizabeth Eden, formerly Ernest Aron. It was Eden for whom Wojtowicz robbed the bank.

“It was real love,” said Frank Keraudren, who with fellow filmmaker Allison Berg interviewed Wojtowicz on camera over a period of 10 years. “Remember, when he was paid by the producers of ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ for the rights to his story, he used it to do what he knew would make Liz happy — he paid for her surgery.”

To make “The Dog,” Keraudren and Berg interweave footage of these discussions with their interviews of Wojtowicz’ friends and family, along with television coverage of the 1972 robbery and archival footage of the 1970’s gay liberation movement in which Wojtowicz played an active role.

The love story is among the reasons film festival executive director Margaret Murray wanted to screen “The Dog” in St. Petersburg.

“If you are a film fan, chances are you’ve seen ‘Dog Day Afternoon,’ ” Murray said. “But then you see this documentary and realize there was so much more to this man than what we learn in that movie ...”

Murray was surprised to learn Wojtowicz was active in the gay rights movement and that he was a loving sibling of a brother with special needs.

“Maybe the least interesting thing about him was the bank robbery,” she said.

Wojtowicz’ blunt way of discussing his sexuality may be offensive to some.

“He was a mess,” Miller said. “And he knew it.”

When Miller met Wojtowicz, he had never heard of him, the robbery or the Pacino film.

Born and raised in Connecticut, Miller relocated to New York City after living in Zephyrhills from 1972 to 1978, married to a woman.

“I knew I was gay,” he said. “I wasn’t honest about it. When I came out I ran to New York so I could live openly.”

A mutual friend introduced Miller and Wojtowicz in February 1982.

“He said, ‘This is the nut that robbed the bank for the drag queen,’ ” Miller said. “I had no idea what he meant, and John didn’t want to talk about it. But we did talk for hours that night about lots of other things.”

That week, Miller researched the bank robbery at a New York City library.

“He intrigued me,” Miller said. “I wanted to see him again.”

Except for a few months of prison time Wojtowicz served for parole violation beginning in 1986, they saw one another from once a month to several times a week from 1982 to 1990.

Miller recalled attending screenings of “Dog Day Afternoon” where Wojtowicz promised to speak afterward. But he would always sneak away before the part where his friend Salvatore Naturale — played in the movie by actor John Cazale — was fatally shot in the head during the failed bank robbery.

“I’d have to stand up and apologize for him leaving and come up with some excuse,” Miller said. “But the truth was that he could not bear to watch his friend die, even if it was an actor. He could be violent but he had a heart.”

Eden died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1987, and Wojtowicz attended the memorial.

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Some news reports said he was still in prison and had to be escorted by guards, but Miller called that false.

“All lies. He was released in April 1987. I went with him to the funeral. We took the train together from Grand Central to Rochester and John promised to pay for my ticket.

“I’m still waiting for him to pay me back,” Miller said with a laugh.

Wojtowicz gave a eulogy, Miller said, declaring, “I loved him. I didn’t want him to get his sex change, but I wanted him to be happy.”

Said Miller, “There was not a dry eye in the funeral home.”

Three years later, Miller moved to Tampa, but he and Wojtowicz stayed in contact.

The last time they spoke was on the phone a few days before Wojtowicz died, Miller said. The conversation mainly was about the pain Wojtowicz was feeling.

“There will never be anyone else like John,” Miller said. “Maybe that’s a bad thing. Maybe that’s good.”

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