Alan Smithee: The Worst Director in Hollywood (Who Doesn't Really Exist)

The History of the Directors Guild of America's Pseudonym

"Death Of A Gunfighter" Film Still
"Death Of A Gunfighter," released in 1969, was one of the first movies to use the pseudonym Alan Smithee.

Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

The name “Alan Smithee” has appeared in the credits of dozens of movies. However, despite his lengthy list of film credits, there is no such person. Since the late 1960s, “Alan Smithee” is a pseudonym that has been used by filmmakers who wish to remove their names from a project they have worked on, making the filmography of Alan Smithee a lengthy resume of many extremely bad movies that the actual directors would prefer not be associated with.

Did You Know?

Alan Smithee "directed" over fifty films, television episodes, and music videos from 1968 to 1998.

Origin of the “Alan Smithee” Pseudonym

The “Alan Smithee” pseudonym was created by filmmaker Don Siegel (director of 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers and 1971’s Dirty Harry) after he stepped in to complete the filming of the 1969 Western Death of a Gunfighter. The original director, Robert Totten, was fired from the production. Siegel refused to take credit for directing only part of a film. However, the Directors Guild of America requires a film to have a directing credit. The DGA ruled that a pseudonym could be used in this instance, and the name “Alan Smithee” was chosen to represent the film’s director in the credits.

However, before Death of a Gunfighter was released the pseudonym was first used for the director of the 1968 TV movie Fade-In, which starred Burt Reynolds. The director of the project, actor/filmmaker Jud Taylor, requested that his name be removed from the film after Paramount Pictures, the studio behind the film, re-edited the movie without consulting him. From that point forward, Alan Smithee (and the alternate spelling “Allen Smithee”) became the official DGA pseudonym for filmmakers who wished to withdraw their names from a film, though the name has also been used by television and music video directors.

Ultimately, the DGA has final say on whether or not a pseudonym could be used as a credit. For example, the DGA did not allow director Tony Kaye to remove his name from 1998’s American History X because he publicly denounced the film’s final edit before requesting to use the pseudonym.

Reasons for Using “Alan Smithee”

In general, filmmakers have used the Alan Smithee pseudonym to signify that they were dissatisfied with the released version (or a particular version) of a movie. However, that covers a variety of circumstances.

Studio Interference

Most directors working on studio projects do not work with the contractual right to have “final cut” on the film, meaning that producers or studio executives ultimately decide on the content of the released version of the film. In some cases, the studio might even bring in a different director to shoot additional scenes. Like Taylor with Fade-In (1968), filmmakers who are unhappy with the final edit of the film have requested to be credited as “Alan Smithee.” Some examples include:

  • Appointment with Fear (1985), directed by Ramsey Thomas
  • Let’s Get Harry (1986), directed by Stuart Rosenberg
  • Ghost Fever (1986), directed by Lee Madden
  • Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996), directed by Kevin Yagher (with additional scenes directed by Joe Chappelle)

Television Edits

Films are typically edited for time and content when they air on television. In some cases, directors are so dissatisfied with the television edits of their films that the television versions are credited to Alan Smithee while the director retains official credit on the theatrically released versions. Some examples include:

  • Dune (1984) directed by David Lynch
  • Rudy (1993) directed by David Anspaugh
  • Heat (1995) directed by Michael Mann

Distancing From the Project

Some directors have used the Alan Smithee pseudonym to simply keep their names off low-quality, typically low-budget movies that they do not want their names to be associated with because they feel it could hurt their reputations. Some examples include:

  • Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home (1987), directed by Terry Winsor and Paul Aaron
  • The Birds II: Land’s End (1994), directed by Rick Rosenthal

“Retirement” of Alan Smithee

During its initial uses, few people outside of the entertainment industry realized that Alan Smithee was a pseudonym. However, by the 1990s the name had become familiar enough to audiences that its purpose was no longer a secret. This became especially apparent with the release of the 1997 comedy An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn, a star-studded movie about an aspiring filmmaker (played by Eric Idle) who is actually named Alan Smithee. Ironically, director Arthur Hiller was so dissatisfied with the production company's cut of the film that he himself used the Alan Smithee pseudonym for the movie. In addition, in 2002 the American Movie Classics television channel aired a documentary about the history of the pseudonym titled Who Is Alan Smithee?

By 2000, the DGA realized that the pseudonym was now so familiar that it no longer served its intended purpose and stopped using the pseudonym. Since then the DGA has used unique pseudonyms for filmmakers who request that their names be removed from a movie. These include:

  • Supernova (2000), credited to "Thomas Lee" (directed by Walter Hill and Jack Sholder)
  • Accidental Love (2015), credited to "Stephen Greene" (directed by David O. Russell)

However, other filmmakers have continued to use the Alan Smithee pseudonym for non-DGA projects, such as 2015's Old 37, directed by Christian Winters.