[Ideally, this space would feature an embed of this Storify published Tuesday evening: “Dear Sidney aka Allan Arbus”. Unfortunately, I got stuck between the modern equivalent of a rock and a hard place — Storify and WordPress. I finally gave up.]
I met Mike Farrell as a young reporter when he came to St. Louis to help raise money for Harriett Woods’ successful race for Missouri lieutenant governor. The two quickly realized I spoke fluent M*A*S*H and Woods, a former reporter, even insisted I get Farrell’s autograph. (I was mortified.) Not long after, a manila envelope arrived at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch bureau. Inside, a blue-covered script and a handwritten note (with my name spelled right) from Farrell: “This is the one we talked about. Enjoy.”
Dated September 3, 1976, it was the second revised final script of Dear Sigmund — the episode that I’d mentioned as my favorite. I can’t remember but my guess is I kvelled at least a little about Allan Arbus, whose recurring portrayal of Dr. Sidney Freedman was a constant thread of sanity — and a spotlight on the right kind of insanity — throughout the series.
He was a mensch who drank Swamp martinis, played poker and could pull off a practical joke. He knew how to listen and when to act. Written by Alan Alda, Dear Sigmund is constructed as a letter from a psychiatrist fighting depression under brutal circumstances to the deceased Dr. Sigmund Freud because “who better than he would understand?”
It is completely absurd and makes total sense.
Talking about the episode, perhaps his best script, in the clip below, Alda said he often forgot Arbus wasn’t a psychiatrist. More than any of the doctors on M*A*S*H, I often wished Sidney Freedman was real.
Reading the script for the first time in a long while, it’s hard not to think of the events of the past week and how we cope — or don’t cope — with horror and grief. How we can cry in the afternoon but desperately search for a laugh before trying to sleep.
I have no research to back this up but I’ve always believed Arbus and his alter ego paved the way for many of the psychiatrists we’ve seen in pop culture since then, just as M*A*S*H made China Beach possible, He was the white hat to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Catch-22. Though I’ve never had the chance to ask Adam Arkin, I thought he channeled a little Arbus as Freedman when he was on West Wing.
I’m probably not alone in wishing Sidney Freedman was real. Here’s a Freedman mashup from YouTube that includes some of Dear Sigmund:
The reel illustrates what Daniel E. Slotnick wrote in The New York Times obit:
“He treated wounds of the psyche much as Capt. Hawkeye Pierce treated surgery patients: with a never-ending string of zingers.”
The genius of M*A*S*H was Hawkeye, Sidney and the others were more than a series of zingers or running gags. They were human. Even Frank. (I draw the line at Lt. Col. Flagg.)
While M*A*S*H is how so many of us know him, Arbus, who died today at 95, had a life outside of fictional Korea. He was a fashion photographer with ex-wife Diane Arbus and he saw war firsthand as a photographer for the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II.
The professional moment that sends Sidney Freedman to the #4077 for Dear Sigmund comes when he thinks he has helped a young soldier face his demons. Freedman tells Hawkeye and B.J.:
“Actually the straw that broke my back was this one kid who heard voices telling him to kill himself. I spent a lot of time with him. Then one day he was very calm, relaxed. That’s sometimes a signal that they’ve made a decision, only… somehow I missed it. And that night after I went to sleep that sweet, innocent, troubled kid… listened to the voices.”
Freedman is at the #4077 to wake himself up as a doctor, as a person. He leaves reminded that even though he can’t beat everyone’s demons, he has to be able to beat his own to help.
I put the script back in the envelope, this thoughtful gift from a busy actor with better things to do, and think of all the ways we touch lives. Thank you, Mike Farrell, for understanding what this would mean to me. Thank you, Allan Arbus for being Sidney Freedman — and Alan Alda and all the other artists who brought M*A*S*H to TV and to us.
Sidenote: Diane Arbus was the younger sister of poet Howard Nemerov, who lived in University City, Mo., a few blocks from where I am typing.