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Top 10 Famous Directors Who Were Fired
Typically, on the set, nobody wields more power than the director, whose vision as a storyteller brings the disparate elements of filmmaking together into a coherent, gripping, moving, and, if the stars are aligned correctly, highly profitable work of art. The egos, tirades, eccentricities, and influence of these Hollywood heavyweights are legendary, but they’re not the only power brokers in Tinsel Town.
Others have egos just as large or larger, possess even more clout, and hold greater sway in the entertainment business. Some are producers. Others are stars who are supposed to work for the very directors they oppose. When such titans collide, someone is bound to fall. Fortunately, many of their defeats, though humbling, are usually temporary, as directors of their stature and accomplishment are too valuable and talented to sideline for long.
10 Peter Godfrey and Joseph von Sternberg
Since both of these men directed different parts of the same movie and were fired by the same person, we’re counting them as a unit.
Howard Hughes had the stars for his movie lined up: Janet Leigh and John Wayne. He had his story: a Soviet spy defects, flies to Alaska, is assigned a handler whom she marries, and the newlyweds return to Russia, from which, after several twists, they flee for their lives. He also had funding: the billionaire would finance the production of the movie himself. What he needed was a director.
He hired Warner Bros.’s Peter Godfrey, but fired him within days, replacing him with Joseph von Sternberg. The brusque director promptly alienated both stars and was soon also dismissed, although he was rehired briefly, before being fired again. Sternberg retained credit for directing the film, but it was actually the movie’s third director, Jules Furthman, who’d written the script with Hughes, who finally finished the picture, seventeen months after filming had first begun. Hughes was not pleased with the result and refused to release the picture. By the time he relented, the aeronautical technology featured in the film was obsolete, and the movie “lost millions.” Although this sum may not have been all that much to the billionaire, Hughes’s injured pride might well have been painful.
Godfrey, himself an actor, had directed such luminaries as Barbara Stanwyck, Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, Ida Lupino, and Mickey Rooney. Sternberg’s credits included a host of films starring Marlene Dietrich, including The Blue Angel (1930), and he’d directed other major stars, such as Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, and Cesar Romero.
Only Furthman, who was primarily a screenwriter, lacked impressive directing credits, but neither he nor the two established directors the billionaire hired could please the financier, anymore than Hughes himself pleased critics or audiences with his disastrous 1957 dud Jet Pilot.
9 Anthony Mann
Despite a careful search for the director of Spartacus (1960), starring Kirk Douglas, the man originally hired for the job didn’t last long. Douglas’s friend and confidant Lew Wasserman, the president of the MCA talent agency, saw the need for a strong director if he and Douglas, who was also the film’s producer, were going to sell their proposal to Universal Pictures. Delmer Daves was unavailable due to “heart problems.” Peter Glenville was directing a Broadway play. Stanley Kubrick was signed to direct One-Eyed Jacks (1961). David Lean turned down the offer.
Douglas liked Joe Mankiewicz, but Wasserman vetoed his choice, saying the movie’s huge projected budget required a “technician they [could] manage,” rather than an artist. Initially, Douglas passed over Anthony Mann, who’d directed mostly Western films, commenting, “I had no interest in doing a ‘shoot ’em up’ with spears.” Finally, when he could find no one else, Douglas hired Mann, despite his own reservations, and filming got underway.
Explanations for Mann’s departure differ. Mann says that he wanted to present the story primarily in a visual manner, while Douglas insisted on using dialogue to tell the story. Douglas claimed that the decision to fire Mann was that of studio executives. Accounts also differ as to whether Mann’s departure was voluntary. Both Mann and producer Edward Lewis contend that Mann chose to leave the picture, while Douglas suggests that his departure was involuntary. According to Lewis, Mann left of his own accord, although he was helped along in making the decision to leave by being “under the weight of dealing with what amounted to four additional directors and screenwriters.
Another view is more decisive in its conclusion as to whether Mann quit or was canned. Douglas’s biographer Michael Munn concludes, “The film was first and foremost Douglas’s vision,” which is why he “named himself executive producer “to ensure it was made his way.” According to Tony Curtis, who played the slave Antoninus, Douglas wanted the focus of the film to be on both “the love story” and the slaves’ rebellion, and the “disagreements over this basic concept led to Mann’s dismissal two weeks into production.”
8 Alex Cox
After a few false starts, Alex Cox had put together a solid record for producing hit movies, including Repo Man (1984), Sid and Nancy (1986), and El patrullero (Highway Patrolman) (1991). Then, the chance to make Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) arrived. He was fired soon after landing the job, though, and the directing gig went to Terry Gilliam instead.
The reason for Cox’s firing appears to be the quarrel he had with gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, on whose book the film was based. The conflict between the director and the author became itself fodder for part of another movie of sorts, the documentary Breakfast with Hunter (2003).
It seems that Cox might also have been given the ax as much for his “fiercely independent punk spirit” and political point of view as for any creative differences he may have had with Thompson. His independence appears to have caused “him to be increasingly shunned by mainstream Hollywood” in general and from Fear and Loathing in particular. His ostracism by the Tinsel Town powers-that-be has led him, more and more, to lean toward making movies in Europe, rather than in Hollywood.
7 John Avilden
John Avilden, who directed Save the Tiger (1973) and Rocky (1976), which won him the year’s Academy Award for Best Director, came to Saturday Night Fever (1977) with a list of accomplishments that highly recommended him as a director. Nevertheless, his arguments with the movie’s producer led to Avilden’s ejection from the director’s chair.
According to the producer, Robert Stigwood, Avilden annoyed him because he kept “changing the script,” wanting to turn Saturday Night Fever “into another Rocky.” When associate producer Milt Felsen approached Avilden about Stigwood’s concern, the director stated that he merely wanted “a few changes” so the movie could “have an upbeat ending.” Although Felsen advised Avilden to “back off” because he was making Stigwood angry, Avilden persisted. Soon afterward, he was fired.
Being canned wasn’t anything new to the director. Avilden had also been fired from The Stoolie (1972) and Serpico (1973), just as he’d later be booted from Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Space Camp (1986), and Gone Fishing (1996). In addition, Macaulay Culkin’s father Kit refused to work with Avilden on Richie Rich (1994). Independence in Hollywood was expensive, but Avilden was willing to pay the price.
6 Philip Kaufman
Although Philip Kaufman’s direction of Goldstein (1964) earned him not only the New Critics Prize at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival of the same year and the applause, during the middle of the film, by the esteemed French director Francois Truffaut and Kaufman had directed both Jon Voight and Robert Duvall in Fearless Frank (1967) and The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), respectively, it wasn’t until the director teamed up with Clint Eastwood to film The Outlaw Josey Wales in 1976 that Kaufman had his chance to direct a superstar.
In revising the movie’s script, Kaufman decided not to have Wales’s enemies give up their quest to kill the outlaw, as they had in the earlier version of the screenplay, but to have them continually hunt Wales throughout the film. Eastwood believed the new approach would maintain suspense, and he was so impressed by the plot change that he decided Kaufman should be the one to direct the movie.
It wasn’t long, though, before others on the crew began to have misgivings about Kaufman. He seemed “indecisive,” a trait that wouldn’t complement Eastwood’s impatience. The uneasiness with Eastwood’s selection increased when Kaufman filmed a Comancheros’ attack on Wales’s wife, Laura Lee, before Eastwood arrived on location. Neither producer Bob Daley nor Eastwood was pleased with the shots, Daley calling them “milquetoast.”
Additional problems, including Kaufman’s perceive inefficiency and concerns with bringing the movie in on time and on budget finally decided the issue, and, reluctantly, Eastwood fired the director. “It’s the hardest thing I ever did in my life,” Eastwood said. With Kaufman gone, the actor added to his existing duties that of directing the film. As a result of Eastwood’s action, the Directors Guild prohibited the replacement of its members by anyone else working on the crew of the movie from which the Guild member had been removed.
5 Kevin Jarre
Another director who had a setback in his career due to his work on a Western movie is Kevin Jarre, who was fired from Tombstone (1993), starring Kurt Russell. A number of considerations led to Jarre’s dismissal. The film was behind schedule and costs were spiraling. Actors resented being told how to move and how to deliver their lines. Jarre seemed to have trouble sequencing film shots and producing coherent scenes. Executives were not happy with the dailies—the film footage shot during particular days. The film was becoming overly long; more than thirty scenes had to be cut.
Jarre, who several crew members, including Kurt Russell, believed to be over his head, refused to listen to advice from seasoned members of the cast and crew. Co-star Val Kilmer said, “I had a conversation with Kevin . . . and said, ‘Listen, Kevin. It’s collaborative. Kurt’s been doing this since he was three years old. He knows what he’s doing. Listen to him.” He also suggested that Jarre heed the advice of other members of the cast and crew.
Finally, Kilmer and Russell warned the young director that he was likely to be terminated if he continued to insist on his way. “It’s not working,” Russell told Jarre, “and they’re going to come in here and can you.” When Jarre insisted on going his own way, producer Andrew Vajna finally fired him. “Kevin was incredibly crushed,” cast member Powers Booth recalled.
4 Richard Thorpe
The Wizard of Oz (1939), starring Judy Garland, is a classic musical, but Richard Thorpe’s two weeks as the film’s director were anything but harmonious for him or the cast. Following the first week of filming, producer Mervyn LeRoy called a meeting. Buddy Ebsen, who played the Tin Man until he discovered that he was allergic to the silvery makeup, recalls LeRoy’s telling the group that the week’s filming was “terrible,” an “utter confusion,” and “berating” the actors.
LeRoy himself suggested that the movie and the director were a mismatch. “He was a wonderful guy,” the producer said, “who made some fine pictures,” but Thorpe didn’t grasp the genre’s need for emotional “warmth.” “To make a fairy story, you have to think like a kid.” Presumably, Victor Fleming, who replaced Thorpe, had such childlike vision. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards and won three, although none were for Best Director.
3 Howard Hawks
Like many Hollywood figures, Howard Hawks was successful in several roles. A screenwriter and a producer, he also directed such famous and accomplished actors as Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Paul Muni, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Cary Grant, and Katherine Hepburn, among many others. His films include such respected classics as The Dawn Patrol (1930), Scarface (1932), Today We Live (1933), Barbary Coast (1935), Ceiling Zero (1936), Bringing Up Baby (1938), and Sergeant York (1941).
It’s hard to believe that anyone would want to fire such a talented virtuoso, but he was dismissed from The Outlaw, a 1943 film starring Jane Russell and Walter Huston. The man who dismissed him? Billionaire Howard Hughes, whose name appears in the movie’s credits as its director. Hawks had just finished directing Sergeant York, when Hughes decided to discharge him because Hughes didn’t appreciate the extreme attention to detail the director exhibited or, for that matter, Hawks’s walking “off the set.” It seemed that Hughes took an uncommon interest in at least a couple of details related to his movie, though: he himself designed the scandalous, figure-enhancing bra that Jane Russell wore in the film.
2 George Cukor
One of the truly great Hollywood directors, George Cukor, was fired from the 1939 epic Gone with the Wind. The reason? Scuttlebutt had it that producer David O. Selznik cashiered him because Clark Gable, the megastar who played the film’s Southern rogue Rhett Butler, took issue with Cukor’s homosexuality, despite Cukor’s and Gable’s having worked together on a previous film, Manhattan (1933).
Although Gable’s alleged homophobia might have been a contributing factor to Cukor’s getting sacked, another reason for the producer’s firing Cukor might have been, as Selznik himself suggested, personal differences. The producer felt that the director couldn’t see the movie’s “scope” and “breadth” and was focusing too much on “the more intimate scenes and female characters.”
1 Stanley Kubrick
By 1976, Stanley Kubrick had already directed a string of colossal hits, often to critical acclaim, including Spartacus (1960), Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and A Clockwork Orange (1971). Although beyond impressive, his resume wasn’t enough to prevent him from being dismissed as the director of One-Eyed Jacks (1976).
Before then, Kubrick had wanted to direct a movie based on a 1935 novel he’d read, World War I veteran Humphrey Cobb’s Paths of Glory. However, MGM refused to finance the film. The story concerned French soldiers who were executed for mutiny before being posthumously exonerated, and the studio had only recently released the anti-war film The Red Badge of Courage (1951), based on Stephen Crane’s 1895 novel.
Kubrick would have to direct something else. Marlon Brando asked him to take charge of The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, a film, based on Sheriff Pat Garrett and the outlaw Billy the Kid, in which Brando was starring. Things didn’t go well. Different opinions and lots of changes caused arguments that became so intense that Brando felt compelled to bang a gong to restore order. Ultimately, the star fired the director, renamed the film One-Eyed Jacks, and took over the duties and responsibilities of directing the picture.