The name was invented when directors Robert Totten, until then primarily a television director, and his successor, Don Siegel (later of 'Dirty Harry' fame), felt they had had no creative control of the Richard Widmark vehicle 'Death of a Gunfighter' (1969) and wished to distance themselves from the film. Widmark, known as a somewhat difficult actor, had clashed with Totten, and Siegel didn’t wish to overshadow his predecessor.
The Directors Guild of America were sympathetic to their position and came up with a solution. The name Alan Smithee was judged as being distinctive enough, and importantly, unused by anyone else working in film, to be used as a pseudonym for a director who didn't want their name to be associated with a film. At the time of the film’s release, notable critics such as Roger Ebert praised the work of this dark horse director under the assumption that they were witnessing the directorial debut of a powerful new Hollywood player.
Smithee would go on to be credited in two dozen films, over 60 episodes of television, and many more music videos. He's been listed in every profession from director to actor to production designer, frequently in films which have made a less-than-favourable impression.
Meta-tastic! A film about Alan Smithee directed by an Alan Smithee. Only problem is, it's terrible.
The popularity of the pseudonym faded in 2000, when its official status was stripped following the exposure it received in the 1997 film "An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn," (in which director Arthur Hiller himself took the pseudonym) and dissatisfied directors have since adopted other stand-ins.
I can't imagine why anyone wouldn't want to be associated with this. It looks brilliant.
At NextShoot HQ we've been thinking about the choice of this particular name. One explanation doing the rounds is that the DGA started with a generic Al Smith, and realising it was far too common a name, kept adding letters until they got to Alan Smithee.
We're not convinced by this. An in-joke anagram seems more entertaining. With the original 'Allen' spelling you can get 'Matinees Hell' which is presumably what the Director feared it would be for the audience or the more descriptive 'I Mean Set Hell'. With the later, more common 'Alan' version we came up with 'Silent Me Aha!' but we honestly reckon the best is 'Alias Me Then' which is presumably what the Director shouted as he stormed off set.