Day 155: The Incredible Vanishing Director – Alan Smithee

originally published June 3, 2012

Meet Alan Smithee.

He has no personal ID. He has no family. He doesn’t even have a face. But he has been involved in a number of major motion pictures, some of which you may have seen.

Smithee first made his mark in Hollywood with the 1969 Richard Widmark / Lena Horne western film Death Of A Gunfighter. Director Robert Totten was feuding with Widmark on the set, and Widmark pushed to have Totten replaced. Don Siegel (who would later direct Dirty Harry) took over, but refused to bump Totten’s name off the director’s credit. Because neither director wanted the billing, they implored the Director’s Guild to help them settle the mess.

The Guild decided that the finished film was not the artistic vision of either Totten or Siegel, and they agreed that a pseudonym could be used. Alan Smithee was born.

As it turns out, he was also quite good. Death Of A Gunfighter opened to solid reviews, including this quote from a young Roger Ebert: “Director Alan Smithee, a name I’m not familiar with, allows his story to unfold naturally.” This was pre-TMZ, pre-Internet… today a story like this would be all over the web; the pseudonym would be pointless.

Jud Taylor, who had directed a number of Star Trek episodes, caught wind of the Totten-Siegel debacle, and promptly asked the Director’s Guild to apply the name retroactively to his 1968 Burt Reynolds bomb Fade-In. Taylor felt that Paramount had smeared his creation by seizing control of the editing process.

Alan Smithee became an ideal way out when someone wanted their paycheck but didn’t want the finished product on their resume. The films upon which the credit was pasted were seldom A-list blockbusters, so there wasn’t a lot of concern over Smithee being called upon to do interviews or promotion. The name was a statement of protest, and a convenient safety net for directors whose work was (in their opinion) desecrated by the studio, the producer, or whomever else.

By the early 1980s, Smithee became one of Hollywood’s busiest directors. His IMDb page boasts 76 directing credits. He became an industry secret, and a red flag to all insiders that a film had been tampered with, or somehow skewed from the director’s intent. Most films credit Smithee without explanation. The undoubtedly riveting 1980 film Gypsy Angels, which starred Richard “Shaft” Roundtree and a pre-Wheel Vanna White as a stripper, lists Smithee as director. I can find no information that points to the actual director, or why he/she dropped the credit, except for the probability that the finished product was awful.

In 1983 an Assistant Director took the name of Alan Smithee in the credits of The Twilight Zone: The Movie. The actual A.D. was present for the segment in which actor Victor Morrow and two children were crushed by a helicopter. Needless to say, he didn’t want that tragedy listed as one of his accomplishments.

The pilot episode of MacGyver was directed by Smithee. Either the actual director felt his work had been meddled with, or else he was intimidated by having his screen credit share space with the raw power of Richard Dean Anderson’s mullet.

Smithee’s 80’s resume appears to be a long list of crappy movies by TV stars who were hoping to cross over, Travolta-style (Sherman Hemsley, Scott Baio…). I wonder if some of the directors simply felt they didn’t want their names associated with crap like this:

Or this:

When Rick “Halloween” Rosenthal opted to make a TV-movie sequel to Hitchcock’s The Birds (possibly because he was taking some strong cold medication? I hope?), he went with the Smithee name. A similar thing happened when X-Files director Jerrold Freedman made an O.J. Simpson TV-biopic in 1995. Smithee soaked up a lot of crap for a lot of otherwise talented people.

People like Dennis Hopper. In 1990 Vestron Pictures clipped Catchfire, director Dennis Hopper’s 180-minute crime thriller starring Jodie Foster, down to a mere 98 minutes. Hopper was pissed and sued Vestron, who had the foresight to go bankrupt before the suit was filed. Hopper opted to let Smithee take the blame for the film.

Smithee couldn’t escape his peers’ respect, however. In 1996 he was nominated for “Best Film” at the Independent Fantasy Film Awards for his entry in the Pinhead oeuvre, Hellraiser: Bloodline. Neither he, nor actual director Kevin Yagher likely attended the ceremony. Like Robert Totten 25 years earlier, Yagher’s vision had been mangled and butchered by higher-ups.

Music videos employed Smithee also – he worked with J-Lo, Faith No More, Salt-N-Pepa, Sarah McLachlan and The Notorious B.I.G. in the 1990s.You can even blame Smithee for the video to Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” (sorry – good luck getting that song out of your head for the next half hour)

The Smithee train was destined to derail eventually. When it did, it did so in perfect Hollywood form: as a movie. 1997’s An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn turned Smithee into a real director (played by Eric Idle) who wants to disavow the film he’s making, but finds that he’s unable to do so because the only allowable pseudonym by the Director’s Guild is his actual name.

A clever premise for a film, but it made the Smithee tactic incredibly public. It wasn’t exactly an air-tight Hollywood secret beforehand, but from that point onward, Smithee would no longer work as an alter-ego. It made no difference that his eponymous 1997 film was a bomb, or that its actual director (fellow Edmontonian Arthur Hiller) claimed interference with his vision by writer Joe Eszterhaus and adopted the Smithee handle himself.

The word was out. Smithee was out of work.

His name still pops up from time to time though.

A number of top-tier movies (Dune, Scent Of A Woman, Heat, Meet Joe Black, The Insider) are credited to Smithee when their “cleaned-up” butcher cuts are shown on all-ages television. IMDb also lists credits for Smithee as writer, producer, editor, art director, grip… even a production assistant. The guy who gets coffee for people, even he didn’t want credit on something.

So watch for him – his name has popped up in punchline form on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and The Simpsons. It’s sprinkled in video games, comic books, and even in porno flicks. Smithee has become as big a Hollywood icon as the Wilhelm Scream.

But that’s an article for another day.

(PS: All of you who own William Hung’s 2005 CD, Happy Summer From William Hung, check the liner notes! Smithee played the guitar tracks.)

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