Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Pull Down Your Pants and Slide on the Ice

Hawkeye (Alan Alda): Sydney, what's the psychiatric basis for gambling?

Dr. Freedman (Allan Arbus): Sex.

Hawkeye: Why?

Dr. Freedman: I don't know. They told me to say it. Sex is why we gamble, sex is why we drink, sex is why we give birth.

Hawkeye: Thank you, doctor.

Dr. Freedman: I'm taking a $5 chip. That was a house call.

It is hardly a revelation to say that M*A*S*H was an iconic television series with an ensemble cast that ran circles around any other ensemble cast on any other TV show before or since.

The ensemble changed over the years. It was quite different at the end than it was at the beginning, but that was not a bad thing. McLean Stevenson, Larry Linville, Wayne Rogers and Gary Burghoff were missed but not terminally. The special genius of the writers was to create characters that were different and yet similar to the ones they replaced.

That might not have worked so well for other shows. But M*A*S*H was special. Anyone who ever watched it knows how special it was.

But it is far more rare to hear praise for the recurring characters who truly helped make it what it was. Without them — characters like the unit's early benefator, Gen. Clayton; the paranoid intelligence officer, Col. Flagg, and the affable psychiatrist, Dr. Sydney Freedman — I seriously doubt that M*A*S*H would have lasted 11 years.

With the noteworthy exception of a sluggish first season, though, the show was in the Top 10 for nearly its entire run.

It has been 30 years since M*A*S*H's still record–holding final episode. Many stories were told that night — and there were times when it was a tearjerker, especially in the last half hour — but the most moving may have been the one in which Sydney treated Hawkeye, who was in a psychiatric hospital following the death of a Korean child for which Hawkeye blamed himself.

Allan Arbus played Sydney with just the right mix of wisdom, compassion and humor in a dozen episodes, including the last one. He appeared in other things during his life — which ended last Friday but was confirmed publicly today — but, if fans linked him to any of the roles he played during his life, it was his role as Sydney Freedman. Hands down.

I doubt that anyone else could have played that role as well as he did. It was as if the role had been written with a picture of Arbus hanging on the wall for inspiration. He really looked the part.

But he also acted the part.

Arbus was 95 at the time of his death, but he will always be the middle–aged psychiatrist in khaki for the millions who watched him at the time — and the millions of fans M*A*S*H has gained in the last three decades — due, in no small part, I am sure, to Arbus' contribution.

The last time we saw him as Dr. Freedman, he was giving the folks in the O.R. the same advice he had given them in an earlier episode:
"Ladies and gentlemen, take my advice. Pull down your pants and slide on the ice!"

That's still pretty good advice.