On a stultifyingly hot day in 1972, a Vietnam vet named John Wojtowicz made headlines when he and another man tried to rob a Brooklyn bank to pay for sex-reassignment surgery for Wojtowicz’s high-strung lover, Ernest Aron, who had been institutionalized after several suicide attempts.
Even before social media, the 14-hour hostage situation became a three-ring circus of police, TV cameras, journalists and looky-loos.
Three years later, Sidney Lumet directed the masterpiece “Dog Day Afternoon,” a fictionalized version of the fateful afternoon in Brooklyn. The film was nominated for six Oscars, including best film, director, actor for Al Pacino, known as Sonny in the movie; and supporting actor for newcomer Chris Sarandon as Sonny’s troubled lover, Leon; with Frank Pierson’s screenplay winning an Academy Award. (The late John Cazale also has a memorable turn as Sonny’s hapless accomplice.)
Warner Bros. Home Entertainment just released the 40th anniversary edition of “Dog Day Afternoon.” Sarandon, 73, who is also known to animation fans as the speaking voice of Pumpkin King Jack Skellington in the 1993 Tim Burton production of “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” chatted on the phone from his home in New York about making “Dog Day Afternoon.”
“Dog Day Afternoon’” marked your film debut. How did you get the role of Leon? Had Lumet seen you in a play?
I auditioned. My agent at the time called me and said, “I just got this script, and I don’t know why I thought of you, but I would like for you to read it.” I knew Sidney slightly because my ex-wife, Susan [Sarandon], had done a picture with him called “Lovin’ Molly.” I read the script and thought this is an amazing script. “What part do they want me to read for?” He said the role of Leon, and I said, “Of course, set it up.”
What do you recall of the audition?
Al Pacino was there and [producer] Martin Bregman and Sidney. After the audition, Sidney came up to me and said that was great but a little less Blanche DuBois and a little more Queens housewife. So I came back and did it again, and that was it. I got it.
This was 40 years ago, and this was your first film. Did people tell you playing a transgender person could hurt your career?
I admit to people having said that to me. But it seemed to me to be really aside the point because first of all it was a great script, a great group of people to be working with and a great part. That is the way I looked at it. I said if people are going to perceive me one way or another, I will prove them wrong some other way. I can’t pass up this chance to do this wonderful part.
The late, great Sydney Lumet was famous for his extensive rehearsals.
He was one of those old-fashioned guys who had come up through the theater and doing live television. He was used to rehearsing. So when I walked into the rehearsal room, all the sets were taped on the floor like we were doing a play. We rehearsed it for three weeks. We did the read-through of the script several times, and then I would come back when my scenes were up. The work was very concentrated.
Did you meet and talk with members of the transgender community?
I had a very close friend who was gay and was in a show I had been in. We had remained friends. I said to him, “Do you know anybody in the tranny community?” He said, “Yeah.”
I said, “Is there someway we could set up an evening where I can sit around and talk with some people that you know?” I remember it vividly. I made a spaghetti dinner at his apartment on Barrow Street with three or four [transgender people].
We sat around and ate spaghetti and talked for four hours. I asked questions like when was the first time you came out in drag? They were truly people who were in the wrong body. It was a real education for me in understanding what the whole transgender world was about.
Did you work with the costumer and hair and makeup people to get Leon’s “Queens housewife” look?
The look came entirely from the photographs we had of the actual event — the teased hair, the eyebrows, the fingernails.
Have members of the transgender community talked to you over the years about playing Leon?
It is interesting that has not happened. I had a number of experiences where gay men would come up to me and come on to me quite boldly right after I did the movie. But I was not sought by transgender people because maybe at that time it was such a taboo.
What have you been doing recently?
I just finished a run at the Lincoln Center Theater 3 in the highly acclaimed musical “Preludes.”
I’ve done a couple of indie movies — “I Smile Back” with Sarah Silverman. I play her father. And “Big Stone Gap,” where I play Ashley Judd’s father. I am playing a lot of fathers — the march of time!