Allan Arbus, who traded in a successful career as a fashion photographer for one as an actor, has died at the age of 95. Arbus’ biggest movie role was as a zoot-suited, singing-and-dancing messiah in Greaser’s Palace (1972), one of the more high-profile films by the prankish writer-director Robert Downey, Sr. But he was probably best known for his recurring role as the psychiatrist Sidney Freedman on the TV series M*A*S*H.
From 1941 until they were divorced in 1969, Arbus was married to the legendary photographer Diane Arbus. After a stint as an Army photographer during World War II, the Arbuses set up their own New York studio and did shoots for such magazines as Vogue, Glamour, and Harper’s Bazaar. But neither was enamored of the fashion world, and in 1956, a year after one of their photos appeared as part of the celebrated photography exhibit The Family Of Man, Diane quit the partnership to concentrate on her own distinctive style of portraiture. Allan, meanwhile, decided to take his chances as an actor.
His career really took off in the 1970s, a time when his curly hair, mustache, and softly strangled-voice delivery made him a familiar, much-in-demand character type. Arbus’ first real movie role was in Downey’s underground hit Putney Swope (1969), after which he appeared in Cisco Pike (1971); as a bad guy in the Pam Grier vehicle Coffy (1973); Cinderella Liberty (1973); Law & Disorder (1974); W. C. Fields And Me (1976), in which he played the film director Gregory La Cava; the torn-from-today’s-headlines TV film Raid On Entebbe (1977); Damien: Omen II (1978); Americathon (1979); and The Electric Horseman (1979).
He found his steadiest employment, though, guest starring on TV series such as The Rockford Files, Starsky And Hutch, Hawaii Five-0, Taxi, Wonder Woman, Cagney And Lacey, and NYPD Blue. Arbus easily radiated a compassionate world-weariness and a wry wit—qualities that made him a natural fit for the role of an Army shrink on M*A*S*H, a man well-qualified to help Alan Alda process some of the many unthinkable tragedies of war and, in particular, Alda’s memorable breakdown in the series finale. Arbus made his first appearance as Dr. Sidney Freedman in 1973, and played the character in a total of 12 episodes.
Arbus’ final screen appearance was in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm in 2000. In the 2006 Nicole Kidman-starring film Fur: An Imaginary Portrait Of Diane Arbus, Allan was played by Ty Burrell of Modern Family, while his romantic rival was played by Robert Downey, Jr., the son of the director who gave Arbus some of his best roles.