Occasionally, even the best directors find themselves saddled with films they know are destined to be black spots on their resumés. Sometimes battles with actors, producers, and studio executives and others result in the destruction of a director's vision. These and other filmmaking troubles can happen at any point during the shooting process and could spell disaster for a director's career. Fortunately, in such cases, the reliable Alan Smithee is around to save the day by taking credit for such ill-fated productions.
While it seems unfair that one filmmaker should bear the brunt of so many lousy films, let it be known that Alan Smithee is not a real person at all, but rather a perverse fiction designed for those refusing to own up to the results of their actions. It is not just directors who invoke his name. Producers and screenwriters, even actors, occasionally, hide behind Smithee.
The origins of the moniker are unclear, and may date back to the 1955 television production Indiscreet Mrs. Jarvis, starring Angela Lansbury. The western Death of a Gunfighter, however (finished in 1967, but not released until 1969) was the first high-profile Smithee credit. A fight between the film's first director, the respected Robert Totten and star Richard Widmark resulted in Totten's replacement by filmmaker Don Siegel. Neither director wanted credit for the film, but the Directors Guild stipulates that every film must list a director. However, Totten and Siegel's reasons for having their names removed were deemed legitimate, After this, Alan Smithee became a common shield for those who felt their productions were abused or destroyed by studios.
The origins of the name Alan Smithee (aka Allen Smithee) are debated. There is a camp that maintains it is an anagram of "The Alias Men." On the other hand, it's also been said that Smithee's creators originally were going to name him the more common Smith but then decided to add the double-e so as not to defame any real-life Allen or Alan Smiths.
Since Gunfighter, which actually received many favorable reviews, numerous productions have borne the Smithee stamp. The name has been used in broader circumstances than those outlined by the Director's Guild and Smithee's illustrious name also occasionally pops up on television. In light of his notoriety, it was perhaps inevitable that some smart aleck in Hollywood would actually make a film about Alan Smithee. Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas was that man. The result was An Alan Smithee Film: Burn, Hollywood, Burn (1997), an alleged comedy starring Eric Idle as a real filmmaker named Alan Smithee, who has a mental breakdown after he makes a terrible film and realizes that the only name he can affix to the credits is his own. In what is either a great irony or a carefully orchestrated publicity stunt, the movie's director, Arthur Hiller, supposedly unhappy over Ezsterhas' cutting of the film, removed his name from the credits. In either case, the quality of the resulting film remains true to the original spirit of Smithee's inception and it appears that critically speaking, Hiller made a wise decision.