Alan Smithee, the most important director in Hollywood

Alan Smithee, Scent of a Woman airline version

The question isn’t so much “Who is Alan Smithee?” but rather “Who isn’t Alan Smithee?

Smithee is, in many ways, the ultimate filmmaker—John Frankenheimer, David Lynch, Dennis Hopper, Martin Brest, and Motion Picture Academy President Arthur Hiller all in one. Though his name (which is sometimes spelled Allen Smithee) makes him out to be a gin-martini-drinking Brit with a downturned mouth and a cowlick, Smithee is actually just a pseudonym—a name adopted by directors who want to take their name off a film.

The Directors Guild of America invented Smithee in 1969, when neither Robert Totten nor Don Siegel wanted the directing credit for Death of a Gunfighter, and he’s been used as a scapegoat ever since. While legend has it that Alan Smithee is an anagram for “The Alias Men,” the DGA claims to have chosen the name because it seemed at once anonymous and uncommon.

Funnily enough, it’s no easy task becoming Alan Smithee: the DGA requires hard evidence of the bastardization of a director’s work before they’ll allow the pseudonym to be used. And the director is thereafter strongly discouraged from divulging to the press his (there seem to be no female Alan Smithees, by the way) reasons for becoming Smithee. These rules may seem exacting, but they protect the DGA from the sort of embarrassment the Writers Guild encountered when dissatisfied screenwriter Robert Towne credited his Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan script to his pooch, P.H. Vazak—who was later nominated for an Oscar. Today, over 40 years after his directorial debut, Smithee has become a fixture in Hollywood’s collective imagination.

Thunderheart an Alan Smithee film


The Work of Alan Smithee

Though Smithee has worked his magic on lots of feature and television films, we thought we’d give you a sampling of his higher-profile projects and the reasons for which he was so urgently called to duty.

An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn (1998) Arthur Hiller (Love Story) – The film’s first director, Milcho Manchevski (Before the Rain), quit, so Hiller was signed. After disastrous test screenings, screenwriter Joe Eszterhas bypassed Hiller and cut twenty-two minutes from the film. Life imitates art.

Hellraiser IV: Bloodline (1996) Kevin Yagher (Tales From the Crypt) – Distributor Miramax insisted on cuts and reshoots right before the release, causing Yagher to quit and Miramax to hire a replacement.

The O.J. Simpson Story (1995) Jerrold Freedman (Kansas City Bomber) – Freedman removed his name when Fox cut a long, brutal scene reenacting the 1989 New Year’s Day incident in which Simpson beat his wife Nicole.

Thunderheart (TV version) (1992) – Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter) – Apted was in delicate negotiations with Native American tribes during filming. He made promises that were broken when Fox re-cut the film for TV.

Scent of a Woman (airline version) (1992) – Martin Brest (Midnight Run) When the airline version was severely cut by censors, Brest took his name off of it. And when an even shorter version was aired on TV in 1996, he did the same.

Bloodsucking Pharaohs in Pittsburgh (1991) Dean Tschetter (Fright Night Part II) – Doesn’t the title say it all?

Backtrack (European version) (1989) Dennis Hopper – The shorter European release of the film was titled Catchfire and was disowned by Hopper. His original 116-minute version (which has been disowned by its star, Jodie Foster) is available on video.

Dune (TV version) (1984) David Lynch – Fifty minutes longer than the original, this version features outtakes, including one scene in which the blue is missing from the Fremen’s eyes—indicating that it was originally cut before the special effects were added.

Death of a Gunfighter (1969) Robert Totten (TV’s Mission: Impossible) and Don Siegel (Dirty Harry)
Star Richard Widmark had TV director Totten fired. Though Siegel finished filming, he felt Totten should get the directing credit—but Totten didn’t want it. The directors are jointly credited as Smithee.