Allan Arbus obituary
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Character actor who played the psychiatrist Major Sidney Freedman in the TV comedy M*A*S*H
The long-running US television comedy M*A*S*H, set during the Korean war, was often perceived as an allegorical look at the Vietnam war, which was still being fought when it began in 1972. But the television show focused less on the specific mindsets of Vietnam which had driven the nihilistic Robert Altman film on which it was based, and in tone was much closer to Joseph Heller‘s novel Catch-22, with its comedic take on the intrinsic absurdity of war.
No character brought that home more clearly than Major Sidney Freedman, the psychiatrist who appeared in 12 episodes over the show’s 11-year run. Freedman was played by Allan Arbus, who has died aged 95. His approach to the mental health of the soldiers, and medics, at the 4077th mobile army surgical hospital unit relied on a humour that was perfectly paired with that of Alan Alda’s character Hawkeye Pierce, but came wrapped in an almost zen attitude towards war and life itself.
Arbus was so convincing in the role that Alda recalled sitting between takes and asking him serious psychiatric questions, expecting authoritative answers. Alda credited the depth Arbus brought to the role with helping both audiences and the actors themselves “believe some of the stresses our characters were under”.
Some of Arbus’s empathy came from his own life, and the breakdown of his marriage to the photographer Diane Arbus. They had remained close after their split and when Diane took her own life in 1971, two years after their divorce, it was a testing time for him. Before he turned to acting, they had been partners in photography, and he had given her her first camera.
Allan Arbus was born in New York, where his father was a stockbroker and his mother taught English. He was only 15 when he graduated from DeWitt Clinton high school and enrolled at City College; he dropped out at 17 and took a job at Russeks department store. A year later, he met Diane Nemerov, the daughter of the store’s owner. They came together through a shared love of photography and in 1941 they married, before Allan enlisted in the Army Signal Corps, serving as a photographer in Burma.
After the war, Diane’s father backed them in opening their own photographic studio, with Russeks as a prime client, and they became successful fashion photographers, working for magazines such as Vogue, Glamour and Harper’s Bazaar. In 1956, Diane left the partnership to pursue her own career, producing her now iconic portraits of 50s and 60s America. They separated in 1959, and Allan began taking acting lessons with Mira Rostova. He made his first, uncredited, appearance in the film Hey, Let’s Twist! (1961).
He played Mr Bad News in Robert Downey Sr’s cult classic Putney Swope (1969) and small roles in quality films including Cisco Pike (1972) and Cinderella Liberty (1973), as well as a memorable turn as a drug dealer shotgunned into his swimming pool by Pam Grier in Coffy (1973). His very New York combination of intensity and sensitivity meant he was in demand as a character actor, especially on television in programmes as varied as The Odd Couple, The Rockford Files and Taxi.
But M*A*S*H defined Arbus’s career. He debuted in the show’s first season, in the episode Radar’s Report, but called Milton Freedman. When he returned three months later, the character had been renamed Sidney. His last appearance came in the feature-length final episode, Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen, in February 1983, at the time the most-watched programme in American TV history.
His best roles included the lead in Stanley Kramer‘s 1974 TV movie Judgment: The Trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and playing the film director Gregory La Cava opposite Rod Steiger in WC Fields and Me (1979). He starred in a short-lived 1979 TV series Working Stiffs alongside Jim Belushi and Michael Keaton, and was excellent married to Barbara Babcock in The Four Seasons (1984), which Alda adapted for TV from his own film. Arbus worked through the 90s, with recurring roles in three series, Brooklyn Bridge, In the Heat of the Night and Judging Amy. His final appearance came in 2000, in Curb Your Enthusiasm.
He is survived by his second wife, Mariclare Costello, whom he married in 1976, their daughter Arin, and two daughters, Doon and Amy, from his first marriage.
• Allan Arbus, actor, born 15 February 1918; died 19 April 2013
via Art and design: Photography | guardian.co.uk http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/2013/apr/24/allan-arbus Michael Carlson Thanks for reading Jay
Posted on April 24, 2013, in Photography News and tagged Art and design: Photography | guardian.co.uk, arts, guardian, IFTTT, info, information, journal, Michael Carlson, news, newspaper, photo, photography. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.