Allan Arbus: Photographer who went on to become an actor best known on television in 'M*A*S*H'


Sometimes a character can take a disproportionately large place in people's memories of a film or television series, an effect that is, in large part due to the actor. So it was with Major Freedman, the M*A*S*H psychiatrist played by Allan Arbus. Though he only appeared in 12 episodes it became a signature role, in part because of how deeply he empathised with the character, possibly through witnessing the mental difficulties faced by his wife, the photographer Diane Arbus.

Arbus was the son of a stockbroker and an English teacher, and dropped out of City College to take an advertising job at Russek's department store. The store-owner's daughter, Diane Nemerov, was studying painting but becoming increasingly frustrated and she and Arbus began seeing exhibitions together. Allan bought her first camera and Russek's employed them to take fashion photographs. He later recalled: "in confronting the world, we were really always tremendous allies". They married in 1941 and during the war he was a photographer in the Army Signal Corps, spending some time in India.

After the war the Arbuses added Vogue, Glamour and Harper's Bazaar to their clients. Broadly speaking, she was the art director and he the technician. Individually, both did more personal work and in 1951, becoming disillusioned with their commercial work, they embarked on a European 'sabbatical'. In 1956 she left the partnership to work on her photojournalism and the disturbing portraits for which she became famous. Three years later they separated though they concealed the fact from their families for another three years. In the meantime they continued to share a darkroom and remained good friends until the end of her life.

Allan's taste also changed and he began to study acting with Mira Rostova, best-known as Montgomery Clift's method-style mentor. The year 1969 was pivotal professionally and personally. It saw his first (uncredited) film appearance, in the teen rocker Hey, Let's Twist! along with Joe Pesci. As he would several times, Arbus played a doctor, perhaps because of the calm he exuded. He also played Mr Bad News in Robert Downey Snr's Putney Swope, a now-cult satire about advertising. Perhaps it was the film's subject matter, but that year Arbus closed the photographic business and moved to California to concentrate on acting. The Arbuses also finally divorced though they continued to support each other emotionally and through the initial financial insecurities.

The early 1970s brought a mix of odd and mainstream work. In 1972 Arbus rejoined Downey to star in Greaser's Palace, a Christian parable in which he played a kipper-tied boogie-woogie song-and-dance man whose performance climaxes with a display of stigmata. The following year he played a drug-dealer in the blaxploitation classic Coffy.

As the title suggests, 1976's WC Fields and Me was set in 1930s Hollywood. Despite bearing no physical resemblance, Arbus played Gregory La Cava, director of comedies including My Man Godfrey. The following year saw another reality-based assignment with the TV film Raid on Entebbe, in which Arbus's performance outshone some of his wooden co-passengers. In The Omen II (1978) he is a scientist who has a fatal "accident" after becoming suspicious about a number of deaths.

While Arbus's later appearances tended to be in less offbeat films, he continued to be involved – albeit usually in smaller roles – in interesting projects, such as The Electric Horseman (1979), the story of a former rodeo star (Robert Redford) transferring to a Las Vegas stage show. Meanwhile, he could be relied on in a regular stream of television shows, including The Odd Couple (1974), Hawaii 5-0 and Law and Order (1976), The Rockford Files and Wonder Woman (1978) and Starsky and Hutch (1979).

Most of these were a couple of episodes in a single season, but between 1973 and 1983 he appeared in a dozen episodes of M*A*S*H, playing the apparently unflappable psychiatrist Major Freedman - he was introduced as Milton, but by his second appearance his name had changed to Sidney. Freedman met his patients and colleagues with smart one-liners, the best-known being his occasional catchphrase; "Drop your pants and slide on the ice."

Co-star Alan Alda admired Arbus's work so much that in 1976 he wrote the episode "Dear Sigmund", in which the psychiatrist struggles with his own depression by writing a "letter" to Freud. Arbus was so convincing that in between scenes, Alda began talking to him as if he were a psychiatrist until he noticed Arbus giving him strange "How-would-I-know-the-answer-to-that?" looks.

In 1984 Alda developed a TV series spin-off from his 1981 film The Four Seasons in which four couples spend four holidays together over the four seasons. With slew of new characters, there was room for Arbus, though it only ran to 13 episodes.

In 2000 Arbus bowed out with an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Larry David joins an incest survivor group to support an old girlfriend and claims that his abuser was his uncle Nathan. Amid the incomprehensible accusations raining down upon his now silver curly hair, Arbus brought his usual calm to the role.

Allan Franklin Arbus, photographer and actor: born New York 15 February 1918; married 1941 Diane Nemerov (divorced 1969; died 1971; two daughters), 1976 Marieclare Costello (one daughter); died Los Angeles 19 April 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower