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(1926–2003). American director.

Directed: "Visit to a Small Planet" (1955), episode of Goodyear Playhouse; "The Lonely" (1959), "The Lateness of the Hour," "The Night of the Meek" (1960), "Twenty-Two" (1961), episodes of The Twilight Zone; The Enchanted Nutcracker (tv movie) (1961); The Illustrated Man (1969); The Screaming Woman (tv movie) (1972); Frankenstein: The True Story (tv movie) (1973); Damnation Alley (1977).
On the face of it, it's hard to figure out why Jack Smight wasn't a more successful director than he actually was.  Since he was a graduate of the University of Minnesota, we do not require the testimony of long-time friend Peter GRAVES to realize that he was "a very intelligent, literate man," and his original aspirations to become a film actor should have enabled him to inspire good performances from his actors. His experiences as a fighter pilot during World War II made him an ideal choice for war films like Midway (1976), arguably his most noteworthy achievement, and should have provided useful insights when overseeing other stories about men under extreme stress. After years of working in television and film, he had all the connections he needed to obtain attractive assignments, and the evidence suggests that he was basically a likable man who made few enemies in Hollywood. The standard biographies, that naturally tend to accentuate the positive, thus offer no clues as to why he twice established himself as a major film director, and twice lost that status.

My own theory about Smight's star-crossed record is rooted in what may be the most revelatory aspect of his filmography, its omissions: no official writing credits, and no reports of Smight stepping in to do uncredited revisions of his scripts.  If, then, he lacked the ability or motivation to modify what his writers handed to him, that would make Smight entirely dependent upon the quality of their work: given an excellent script, he might make an excellent film, but he would be helpless if the script was significantly flawed.  If one adds that he also seemed most comfortable only with the mildest forms of science fiction, it becomes possible to explain the twists and turns of his long career.

Smight first came to Hollywood with Graves, whom he had first met in high school, and though both were getting jobs by the 1950s, they oddly only worked together on one of Smight's last films, the police drama Number One with a Bullet (1987).  As one examines his early directing credits in television, the one that stands out—the first version of Gore VIDAL's play Visit to a Small Planet—is hopefully not lost, since it was surely a better representation of Vidal's intent, and of the story itself, than the abysmal film starring Jerry LEWIS. Smight then entered Rod SERLING's The Twilight Zone, with mixed results: with good scripts and performers, he capably executed two of the series' most underrated episodes, "The Lonely" and "Twenty-Two," but he couldn't deal with the logical problems and miscast actors which, along with the cheap, clumsy use of videotape, doomed "The Lateness of the Hour" and "The Night of the Meek." Perhaps preferring less outré assignments, Smight shifted his energies to more conventional series, including The Law and Mr. Jones, The Defenders, Arrest and Trial, and Dr. Kildare, and was soon rewarded with a series of major films featuring stars like Paul Newman and another of his actor friends, Rod STEIGER. But it all came crashing down when he took on the difficult task of turning a collection of unrelated short stories, Ray BRADBURY's The Illustrated Man (1951), into a coherent film. With three uninvolving adaptations of Bradbury stories interspersed with interminable, grating scenes of Steiger constantly screaming at an inert Robert Drivas, The Illustrated Man may qualify as one of the most unwatchable science fiction films ever made, and it is difficult to imagine anyone sitting through it unless they are driven to do so (as I was) by a research project. How Smight failed to recognize that his script and actors were all wrong, and why he failed to do anything about it, will forever remain a mystery. After the film predictably proved a complete bomb, Smight did get to direct two more, under-the-radar failures, but The Illustrated Man effectively ended his film career.

However, demonstrating an admirable resiliency, Smight returned to directing episodes of crime series (Columbo, McCloud, Banacek, Madigan) and a number of television movies, achieving one standout success: Frankenstein: The True Story; for while Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy's script was far from an accurate adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel, despite their title,  they did strikingly bring the homoerotic elements of the story to the forefront, and Smight's work with a remarkable cast that included James MASON, Agnes MOORHEAD, John GIELGUD, and Ralph RICHARDSON could not be faulted. It was surely this film that inspired Hollywood producers to put his name back into their Rolodexes, resulting in two of his most entertaining films, Airport 1975 (1974) and Midway. But as if determined to demonstrate that, The Illustrated Man notwithstanding, he could handle a science fiction film, Smight then signed on to direct an adaptation of Roger Zelazny's novel Damnation Alley (1969); but again saddled with a wretched script and unpalatable stars (Jan-Michael Vincent and George Peppard), the result was another horrible film, although the giant cockroaches at least offered a modicum of guilty pleasure.

Having again destroyed his career with a self-inflicted wound, Smight did remain active for another decade or so, with minor films and more television work, before deciding to retire at the age of sixty-five. A dedicated family man who had given his wife, Joyce Cunning, most of her roles, he also helped his son Alec Smight launch a successful career as an editor for television series, and one hopes that he enjoyed a blissful retirement of hanging out with his old friends Graves and Steiger, whose careers had also had their ups and downs, sharing their memories of the good times without brooding about what might have been.

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