Saturday, April 27, 2013

Under the Radar: Allan Arbus

The actor Allan Arbus died a few days ago at the age of 95. He didn't start out as an actor, but instead was a commercial photographer from the end of World War II until about 1970. Now, if  "Arbus" and "photography" sound like they should go together, it's because he was married to Diane Arbus, famed for her black-and-white pictures of, as the Library of Congress puts it, "deviant and marginal people (dwarfs, giants, transgender people, nudists, circus performers) or of people whose normality seems ugly or surreal." But she didn't do any of that until she separated from her husband in 1959.  Until then she was a commercial photographer, too, one who found that profession, and possibly her life in general, rather unfullfilling. I just found out a few minutes ago about a 2006 film called Fur, based on Diane's life in the 1950s. Nicole Kidman played her, and Allan was portrayed by Ty Burell. I haven't seen this film (kinda hard to do in a few minutes time), but I gather from some of the IMDb "User Reviews", Allan is shown as being rather conventional, stable, mild-mannered, whereas Diane apparently was not (just peruse the  disturbing imagery found in some of  her photographs.) The couple finally divorced in 1969, and Diane committed suicide two years later.


I don't know what effect the dissolution of his marriage and his ex-wife's subsequent death had on him, but conventional, stable, mild-mannered Allan Arbus decided around this time to enter that most unconventional, most unstable, most unmannered of professions: acting. While Arbus never became a star, he seems to have worked steadily enough. He first had small parts in such 1970s films as Greaser's Palace and Cinderella Liberty, played director Gregory La Cava in W.C. Fields and Me, but was best known as psychiatrist Dr. Sidney Freeman on the TV show MASH.

MASH, based on an earlier hit movie and comic novel, concerned a U.S. Army hospital unit during the Korean War. The doctors and nurses working in such a place in real life would have witnessed more disturbing imagery in ten minutes in OR than could be found in 50 rolls of Diane Arbus film, something that could only be hinted at in a 1970s sitcom. More broadly revealed, however, was the way these health professionals dealt with the stress of that situation, with wisecracks, practical jokes, and hard partying. As only an occasional visitor to the 4077th (12 appearances in 11 seasons), Sidney Freeman marveled at the way the more permanent residents (until their hitches were up) could hold fast to their humanity with good humor in such a hellish environment. But he also realized that while humor may be the best medicine, it can run out, and that's where he came in. The mild-mannered qualities that, if the IMDb User Reviews are to be believed, failed Allen in his marriage, were just right for Dr. Sidney when healing doctors and patients alike once the laughs died down:

!!!WARNING!!! You may find the imagery in the below clip very disturbing:

If it makes you feel any better, I think they got that baby from the props department. At least, I hope they got it from the props department.
A note on the title of this post. Even though there's a character named Radar on MASH, it's not meant as a pun. For a while now I've considered doing a regular feature called "Under the Radar" about talented people in the arts whom, for whatever reason, never achieved fame. While Allan Arbus was no deviant, he was mostly a marginal figure in the pop culture landscape. Some of you might argue that's only fitting. Arbus never had that "star" quality.

He just did quality work.

You can read more about Allan Arbus here.


  1. I always liked when he appeared in MASH and I can't believe he was only on 12 times. Funny when you see him older with grey hair you think... but I just saw him on TV last night. I never think of him getting older.
    I was just looking at a "stars we lost this year" and you realize what a treasure many of these "charter" actors are. They are the glue that holds many stories together.

    cheers, parsnip

    1. parsnip, I just checked the Internet Movie Data base (better known as IMDb; have never understood why the last word's not capitalized.) There are two seasons where Arbus appeared twice; the rest of the time he was on just once a year. It seems like he was on more than that to me, too. I guess it's because he created such a memorable character. If you watched the first YouTube clip from the top, you'll see the late Edward Winter (I just found out a moment ago that he's "late") who played the crazy intelligence officer Colonel Flagg. He was on MASH even less than Arbus/Sidney, a mere seven times. It seems like he was on a lot more, too.

      If by charter actors you mean supporting players, I agree that they are the glue that holds it all together. I often prefer them to the leads.

  2. Interesting article. I was aware of Allan Arbus and Diane Arbus yet did not put them together.

    I saw the movie Fur a year or so ago and it was unusual, to say the least, but it hasn't stuck with me and there's not a lot I remember about it. You'll have to see it and give it your own review.

    1. I was aware of each seperately, but never knew they were married until a couple of months ago when someone mentioned it in the comment section of an entertainment blog I read (the very one I've provided a link to, though not that particular post)

      I thought about watching the movie FUR before working on this this post, but was afraid it might cut into my
      writng time. I DID look at the trailer. If I'm wrong, tell me, but I get the impression it's of the repressed-1950s-housewife genre, something that already contradicts the known facts about her life. "My husband is the photographer" Nicole Kidman says in a little girl voice. Her and Allan were business partners. That right there makes it a rather progressive marriage for the times. And it you look at the above left-hand picture of the couple, it's Diane who's leaning forward as if she about to look through the lens.

      I see in another YouTube clip that Robert Downing Jr is covered with hair. In keeping with the repressed housewife motif, this could be The Wolf Man as directed by Douglas Sirk. But I'm getting snarky about something I haven't seen in full. I'm definitely going to have to seek this movie out.

    2. OK, that should be "SHE and Allen were business partners", and I forgot to acknowledge that it's Postino's comment I was responding to.