Stupid Question ™
May 9, 2005
By John Ruch
Q: Where did the fake name Alan Smithee come from for directors of bad movies?
—Scott and Doug, Columbus, Ohio
A: Originally “Allen Smithee,” this pseudonym has become a kind of Hollywood in-joke for directors who are embarrassed—or simply don’t care—about their work. But it began as a serious solution to a union problem.
It goes back to the Richard Widmark/Lena Horne Western (you can see where its problems began) “Death of a Gunfighter,” which began lensing in 1967 under the direction of Robert Totten.
Totten was predominantly known—well, not for anything. But he had experience directing the TV series “Gunsmoke.” The studio, not liking his work, quickly yanked him from the project.
He was replaced by the great action director Don Siegel (“Dirty Harry,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”). Siegel did his job, but he wasn’t very happy with the mishmash, either.
When the movie finally hit theaters two years later, egos and embarrassments led to neither director wanting his name on the movie. It being unheard of for a movie to be released anonymously, this was a problem.
The Directors Guild of America, the trade union that sets rules on this sort of thing, at first wasn’t having any of it. But finally, it decided to establish an official fake name to shelter unsatisfied directors (especially those unsatisfied due to forces beyond their control).
The general approach was to create a name that was unobtrusive, yet wouldn’t be confused with any innocent director.
I haven’t found any records of how “Allen” was selected. “Smithee” began as the mega-discreet “Smith,” until it was realized there would eventually be some innocent Allen Smith out there would get saddled with “Death of a Gunfighter.” And so the extra “E”s were added on the theory nobody would ever have that name.
The Allen Smithee deception worked, and Hollywood lore now includes the reviews of “Death of a Gunfighter” that praised Smithee for his deft direction.
Nobody would mistake the name for real today. The name, which has curiously morphed into “Alan Smithee,” is often self-consciously used by directors of straight-to-video dreck and similar movies that are simply bad out of the box, not the result of some kind of tampering.
And the joke really came out of the closet (or would have, if anyone had seen such a wretched movie) with the 1997 satire “Burn Hollywood Burn,” about a “real” Alan Smithee who comes to Hollywood, wants to remove his name from an awful film and finds out the pseudonym is his real name.
The Directors Guild is less uptight these days, and has less control over various filmmaking outlets, so other pseudonyms are used, with none being standard.
The Internet Movie Database has an amusing faux biography of Alan Smithee, including a shooting-down of the theory that the name came from an anagram for “The Alias Men.” Naturally, the biography is credited to “Alan Smithee.”