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Who Was Alan Smithee, and Why Did He Make So Many Terrible Movies?

Alan Smithee was a terrible filmmaker. In a career that spanned more than three decades, Smithee tackled pretty much every genre, helming comedies, thrillers, westerns, horror, drama, science-fiction — the lot. And his films were almost always bad. Like Uwe Boll bad.

In between, he tried his hand at TV, cartoons, music videos, comic books and video games, with inevitably disastrous results. While Alan also — somewhat bizarrely — re-edited a bunch of films for TV and planes, with the Smithee cut almost always inferior.

But who was Alan Smithee? Where did he come from? Why did his work stink? And how did his name become synonymous with bad filmmaking? Smithee’s story is a strange one that’s filled with twists, turns, and cameos from the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Whitney Houston, The Mighty Ducks, David Lynch, and Homer Simpson. His tale proving that — in Hollywood at least — fact can be stranger than fiction.

Who Was Alan Smithee?

Alan Smithee title card.
The greatest trick the devil ever pulled…

Alan Smithee is not, was not, and never has been a real person. Rather, he was the pseudonym used by directors who wished to disown a project. When a filmmaker felt that they had lost control of a movie, or that it had been altered or changed against their wishes, they could appeal to the Director’s Guild of America (DGA), and if successful, their name would be removed and replaced by that of Alan Smithee.

When it comes to feature films, the Alan Smithee moniker was used more than 30 times in 30 years. Catchfire (1990) is maybe the most famous example, with Dennis Hopper removing his name until his own director’s cut was released on video.

Sequels to The Birds, The Mighty Ducks and Hellraiser also carry the credit, as well as a National Lampoon flick (1995’s Senior Trip), a TV movie about OJ Simpson, and a star-studded Hollywood satire called Burn Hollywood Burn. But more on that later.

On TV, Alan Smithee is credited on episodes of The Twilight Zone, La Femme Nikita, Tiny Toon Adventures, and the MacGuyver pilot. While the video for Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ is also a Smithee joint.

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As for the TV versions of movies that directors are so seldom fond of, several big names took advantage of the Smithee loophole, with Michael Mann using it for Heat and The Insider, Martin Brest employing it for Meet Joe Black, and David Lynch crediting the TV version of Dune to Alan Smithee. While at the same time changing his writing credit to Judas Booth, a very Lynchian combination of Judas Iscariot and John Wilkes Booth.

The Birth of Alan Smithee

It all started with a 1969 film called Death of a Gunfighter, a western about the people of a Texas town ousting their old-fashioned marshal. Robert Totten spent around 25 days in the director’s chair, but clashes with the film’s star Richard Widmark saw him removed and replaced by Don Siegel, who shot for a further 10.

When the film was finished, Siegel didn’t want to take credit for Death of a Gunfighter, and neither did Totten. So the Director’s Guild had a problem. They listened to both sides of the argument, believed Totten and Siegel to be in the right, and so decided to credit the western to a fictional director.

They needed a name that was not only unique and believable, but also generic enough to not draw attention to itself. For fear of undermining both the Guild and the station of director as the ultimate author of a film. The name they came up with was… Allen Smithee.

Which initially confused critics, with esteemed scribe Rober Ebert stating in his review for Death of a Gunfighter: “Director Allen Smithee, a name I’m not familiar with, allows his story to unfold naturally. He never preaches, and he never lingers on the obvious.”

The New York Times was also duped, Howard Thompson claiming: “The mounting tension is well-spun. Using the color and camera graphically, Mr. Smithee has an adroit facility for scanning faces and extracting background detail.”

The con was on. Allen was turned into Alan for a retroactive change to Burt Reynolds film Fade In, and with that, Smithee’s career was up-and-running; critics and audiences alike blissfully unaware that he didn’t actually exist.

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Smithee Controversies

Picture from behind-the-scenes of American History X.
Tony Kaye (l) directing Edward Norton (r) on the set of American History X.

For much of his career, Smithee toiled away silently. Mainly due to DGA rules forbidding a director from discussing their experience once they had successfully navigated arbitration. But there were also controversies along the way.

Second Assistant Director Anderson House was one of the only ADs to use the pseudonym, and the circumstances surrounding his decision were tragic. Anderson was working on Twilight Zone: The Movie, during which star Vic Morrow and two child actors — Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shitt Chen — were killed in a helicopter accident. A lengthy court case followed. Director John Landis was tried, and acquitted, of voluntary manslaughter. And House disassociated himself from the film by having his name removed.

In 1998, director Tony Gilroy tried to invoke Alan Smithee — or alternatively Humpty Dumpty — for American History X, claiming that both Edward Norton and the studio were meddling with his vision for the movie. He spent thousands of dollars denouncing Norton in the press. Lobbied to have his name replaced. And filed a lawsuit against the DGA. But they refused, claiming that by making the feud so public, Kaye had made it impossible to disconnect himself from the film, and a change in credit therefore pointless.

Finally — and somewhat less seriously — in 1998 Simpsons episode ‘D’oh-in’ in the Wind’ Mr. Burns directs a recruitment video for the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. But he’s so dissatisfied with the result — largely due to Homer’s performance — that he removes his name and replaces it with… you guessed it: Alan Smithee.

Three controversies that, in a variety of ways, contributed to…

The Death of Alan Smithee

While industry folk quickly realised what was going on with Alan Smithee, the DGA didn’t want the general public to get wind of the truth. For fear that the name would simply become a mark of poor quality. And evidence that they were basically lying to audiences. But the above incidents took the name into the mainstream. And then Burn Hollywood Burn happened.

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A 1998 feature that was written and produced by Joe Eszterhas, the film’s full title is An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn. It stars Eric Idle as a film director who helms a movie called Trio. But when he sees the studio’s cut of the movie, he disavows it. Trouble is, his own name is Alan Smithee, and so unable to use the accepted pseudonym, he instead steals the film and holds it hostage.

The film featured cameos from the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Whoopi Goldberg and Jackie Chan, which made it big news. It also became a monumental flop and won a bunch of Golden Raspberries, which made it even bigger news. And in a plot-twist fitting of a film much better than Burn Hollywood Burn, director Arthur Hiller claimed that Eszterhas interfered with his efforts, and successfully removed his name from the credits. Meaning An Alan Smithee film was ultimately directed by Alan Smithee.

This was an all-out disaster for the DGA, and the immense negative publicity that surrounded Burn Hollywood Burn left them little choice but to retire the name. Effectively killing Alan Smithee for good.

The moniker still appears from time-to-time, as a movie in-joke, or on titles that don’t fall under DGA jurisdiction. But when it comes to American feature films, Alan Smithee is no more. Signalling the end of one of the worst careers in Hollywood history.

But that isn’t the end of the Smithee story. In Alan’s absence, successors have appeared in his place, to signify a disaster behind the scenes, in front of the camera, or both. A prime example is horrendous sci-fi flick Supernova, on which director Walter Hill had himself removed and replaced by ‘Thomas Lee’ in somewhat mischievous fashion. As there’s a whole page-full of Thomas Lees on IMDB.

So keep your eyes peeled, as the next Alan Smithee is probably out there already. Putting the finishing touches to some celluloid disaster. Arguing with suits from the studio. Or very possibly headlining the credits of that terrible film you just saw.

Who Was Alan Smithee, and Why Did He Make So Many Terrible Movies?

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