Monday, June 12, 2006

Almost Famous: The Spelvins, the Plinges and the Smithees


Alert Broadway theatergoers occasionally spot a familiar actor's name in a play's printed program--George Spelvin. Over a span of 100 years, he has shown himself to be a hardy trouper, having appeared in 67 plays and revivals. Before you begin wondering why he has never received a lifetime achievement award, you should know that George Spelvin is a fictitious name adopted by actors for various reasons.

George Spelvin may be the name used by an actor doubling in another role in the play. Or George Spelvin may be an actor who wants to conceal his identity. (For example, an actor playing the part of a corpse in a play might prefer the anonymity of the name George Spelvin.) In five of the 67 plays in which the name has been used, it has been shown as George Spelvin, Jr. The 1929 play Kibitzer uses a father-and-son combination: the names of both George Spelvin and George Spelvin, Jr. appear in small parts. The play was written by journalist (and later lyricist) Jo Swerling and Edward G. Robinson, who also played the principal role. Robinson was yet to be a big name; that would come after he played a sensational Capone-like gangster in the 1931 film, Little Caesar.

The program of the 1932 play They All Come to Moscow, which marked the Broadway debut of Hollywood actor Cornel Wilde, appropriately carries the name George Spelvinsky playing the part of an officer in the Russian secret police. In the program for the play In Any Language that opened in New York’s Cort Theatre on Oct. 7, 1952, and starred Walter Matthau and Eileen Heckart. The play is set in Rome, Italy, and the name George Spelvin appears playfully as Giorgio Spelvino.

George Spelvin had a female counterpart, Georgette Spelvin. The female version of the name enjoyed a brief, two-year run of popularity between 1932 and 1934. It appeared in the program of the 1932 play Riddle Me This, starring Thomas Mitchell, and the 1934 production of Dodsworth, based on Sinclair Lewis's novel, in which Walter Huston starred. An actress in hard-core adult films, born Dorothy May in Texas in 1936, used the name Georgina Spelvin from 1957 until she retired in 1982 at age 47.

Another substitute name that has been popular with actors on Broadway is Walter Plinge. The name has been used to identify an actor in 12 plays on Broadway between 1917 (in Colonel Newcome, staring Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who died shortly after the play closed) and 1936 (in a revival of Cyrano de Bergerac starring Walter Hampden). The name Walter Plinge was also that of the stage manager of the 1965 play, All in Good Time.

Hollywood has used the names George Spelvin and Walter Plinge sparingly to conceal the identity of an actor. The name George Spelvin appeared in the credits of only seven films between 1926 (Just Suppose) and 1999 (Kiss Toledo Goodbye). The most recognizable George Spelvin was probably Robin Williams, billed by that name in the 1996 film The Secret Agent, playing the part of the Professor in the film version of the Joseph Conrad novel.

Williams had used names other than his own on the credits of several films in the past. In 1988, playing the part of the King of the Moon, he was billed as Ray D. Tutto (which Italian speakers will recognize as "king of everything"). As Sudy Nim, Williams supplied the voice of the kiwi in the 1991 TV film, A Wish for Wings That Work. And in the 1992 film Shakes the Clown, Williams, billed as Marty Fromage, played the part of the mime class instructor.

The George Spelvin name also appears on the screen credits of directors, writers, cinematographers, composers, editors, art directors, and production designers. The most popular identity-hiding name used in Hollywood, however, is not George Spelvin. That dubious honor goes to director Allen Smithee, a name that was first employed in 1969 on the film, Death of a Gunfighter, starring Richard Widmark and Lena Horne, and helmed by director Robert Totten.

Partway through the film, Widmark locked himself in his trailer and refused to come out. Totten was replaced as director because of "artistic differences" with Widmark, who had the reputation of sometimes being difficult to work with. Multi-talented Don Siegel, whose fame had been growing since his 1956 classic film Invasion of the Body Snatchers was hired to take over. Siegel had just finished working with Widmark on Madigan, a 1968 film about a maverick detective. However, the new director shot little more than a new opening and new ending for the troubled film.

With filming concluded, Siegel, uneasy because Totten had actually directed more of the film than he had, refused to take screen credit as did Totten. Instead of using his name, Siegel suggested that the director's name be shown as Al Smith. After the Directors Guild of America discovered that there already was a listed director of that name, Siegel suggested an alteration of the name Al Smith--Allen Smithee. A precedent was set for directors who did not want their names on a film. The name has several variants: Alan Smithee, Alan Smythee, Adam Smithee.

"I'm sorry I got involved in the making of the picture," Siegel said later. "I thought Totten made a mistake in taking his name off the credits when I did, as he was truly the director of Death of a Gunfighter." The picture was released on May 9, 1969. To everyone's surprise, it found favor with critics and the public alike. In Chicago, Roger Ebert wrote, "Director Allen Smithee, a name I am not familiar with, allows his story to unfold naturally. He never preaches, and he never lingers on the obvious. His characters do what they have to do." He added an opinion that must have pleased Robert Totten: "This is one of Richard Widmark's best, most fully realized performances." Critic Howard Thompson, reviewing the film in The New York Times, wrote, "the film has been sharply directed by Allen Smithee."

Allen Smithee, with its variant Alan Smithee, turned out to be an all-purpose name. Hollywood is not known for its modesty, but between 1969 and 1997, the Smithee name was also used to conceal the identities of 34 directors, 29 actors, 28 writers, 28 film producers, 22 miscellaneous crew members, 10 second-unit directors and 5 cinematographers. In addition, the name served to hide the identities of assorted production designers and managers, art directors, artists and other specialized crafts.

Death of a Gunfighter lost the doubtful honor of being the first Allen Smithee film when two films that had gone into production in 1968 were credited to him retroactively. One was titled Iron Cowboy (also known as Fade In) that marked the first starring role for actor Burt Reynolds. The other film retroactively ascribed to Allen Smithee was The Omega Imperative.

After 28 years and 33 Smithee-directed films on the record books, director Arthur Hiller's cut of his 1997 biting film about the movie colony was rejected by the production company that had bankrolled it. An unhappy Hiller suggested that his name be removed from the film, which was eventually titled An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn. It was intended to be the last film to bear that all-purpose director's name: The Directors Guild effectively put an end to the name game--at least for directors--simply by delisting the fictitious Allen/Alan Smithee as a director.

The Smithee name proved to be hard to kill. It still turns up on films that have been edited for TV or for showings on airplanes when creative types associated with the film, such as script writers, have wanted to distance themselves from the truncated version.

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