The pantheon of bad directors is full guys whose films are executed with endearing ineptitude—you know, your Tommy Wiseaus and Ed Woods. But then there’s Alan Smithee, whose body of work spans decades and genres and really plumbs the depths of terribleness on a whole other level.
If you haven’t heard of him, know that the guy got off to a decent of start with Death of a Gunfighter in 1969. The flick earned him praise from legendary film critic Roger Ebert, who wrote, “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.”
But Ebert couldn’t have been familiar with Smithee because Smithee was a fake person, a pseudonym invoked when the troubled film’s two directors both shirked credit. The Directors Guild convened a panel to decide on an appropriate pseudonym, settling first on “Al Smith” before realizing it was already the name of at least one working director. “Allen Smithee” (later “Alan”) was unique enough to be distinct but generic enough not to arouse suspicion.
Going forward, the pseudonym was primarily employed when a director felt a studio had usurped his or her creative vision and ruined their film, in which case the DGA would grant permission to credit Smithee instead. And the dude racked up quite an oeuvre, including (but not limited to) The Birds II: Land’s End, an episode of The Twilight Zone, Let’s Get Harry with Robert Duvall, Mighty Ducks the Movie: The First Face-Off, the TV version of Dune, and Hellraiser: Bloodline.
Smithee’s more or less non-existent reputation finally came crashing down with the 1997’s An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn, a weird in-joke of a movie that featured cameos from Sylvester Stallone, Whoopi Goldberg, and Jackie Chan. It told the story of a fictional director named Alan Smithee who hated his own movie so much he wanted to use a pseudonym—but couldn’t because the only one allowable was “Alan Smithee.”
A bizarrely meta fight between the film’s actual director, Arthur Hiller, and writer/co-producer Joe Eszterhas, however, resulted in Hiller requesting that the DGA remove his own name from the movie. The default pseudonym to replace it was, of course, Alan Smithee.
In a statement at the time, Eszterhas said: “I was informed this afternoon that Arthur Hiller has removed his name from An Alan Smithee Film and will be using a pseudonym. Since the Directors Guild stipulates that the only pseudonym a director can use is Alan Smithee, I guess this means An Alan Smithee Film will be an Alan Smithee film. I know some people will think this is a guerrilla-style publicity stunt in a guerrilla production. It isn’t.”
After that, Alan Smithee more or less vanished from the public eye. The name had become infamous enough that slapping it on a movie was the equivalent of marketing it as total crap.
“He’s been damaged to the point that it’s unworkable,” director John Rich (one of the original guys who voted on the Alan Smithee name back in ’69) told the L.A. Times in 2000. “This is an ideal time for his obituary.”
Thus, Alan Smithee was laid to rest.
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