Television has always had its seminal shows. And those shows, by definition, have produced many seminal characters. And some of those characters, trite and ridiculous as it may sound, have been highly influential.
Because of one of the most seminal shows of my generation, I grew up with the firm but mistaken conviction that the Korean Peninsula looked just like Southern California. Or, more accurately, as I had never been to Southern California or to Korea, but had watched countless episodes of M*A*S*H with something just shy of religious fervor, I thought that all of Korea consisted entirely of a signature rocky peak, a dusty path to a helicopter pad, and a bunch of funny, caring and suffering doctors who were all stuck in a seemingly endless war.
M*A*S*H was absolutely key to my identity and development. My father was a busy man, one of the first intensive car doctors in Kansas City, and he left early and came home late. I imagined at first that he worked in what looked a lot like the tented hospital at the 4077th. I tried to imagine myself doing what he did, in those rocky caverns of "Korea" (this romantic fantasy was eased forward by my father's service in the Air Force as a military doctor during the Viet Nam conflict). The problem, though, was that I couldn't picture myself doing what Hawkeye did. I liked, instinctively, his love of humanity, and his sense that war was awful, and his use of humor as a healthy way to cope. I liked the way he sat at his patients' bedsides and held their hands and sighed. Also, I admit, I liked it a lot when he managed on at least one key episode to aggressively and mutually hook up with hot lips Houlihan.
But there was something missing. I wanted him to talk more with his patients, but I understood that Hawkeye was, after all, a surgeon, and it was, after all, a 30-minute television show, and he was, at the end of the day, a fictional character. (I also wanted him to go further with ol' Hot Lips Houlihan, but that was for different and more hormonally driven reasons.)
Then, on something like the 20th episode, along came Allan Arbus, playing the role of Sidney Freedman, M.D., the military psychiatrist occasionally dispatched to the 4077th. Even at the barely pubescent age of 11 (I started my balding early) I was inspired and moved by Dr. Freedman's work. The staff of the 4077th called on Sidney with respect and admiration. They needed him as much as they needed their surgeons and their nurses and the still from which Hawkeye brewed his whiskey.
"We need Sidney," I remember them saying, although I spent a good part of today trying to find that exact quotation and I'm now not so sure that they ever actually uttered those words in any of the scripts. I guess that's because they didn't need to. They knew, and by extension the viewer knew, what was needed.
What I'm saying is that the characters on M*A*S*H needed Sidney as much as their patient's needed Sidney, as much as I needed Sidney, as much, in fact, as Sidney needed all of them. Sidney's therapeutic efforts came through the deceptively simple but in fact grueling chore of sitting with others through immense pain and heartbreak. Some strange, masochistic, and certainly rescue-fantasy-driven identity got piqued in my sense of self and purpose by the character that Allan Arbus portrayed. If I were to be a doctor (and I was already the balding son of a doctor so the cards were at least 50% pointing in that direction) I was gonna be a shrink, and I was gonna be a shrink like Sidney, because even the surgeons of the 4077th couldn't do what they did without Sidney.
So, I even called Alan Arbus once, and he was kind enough to call me back. This was about 5 years ago. I had realized at the time that Dr. Freedman's bedside manner was increasingly on my mind. On a whim I looked him up on Wikipedia.
He was born in 1918...not a spring chicken, but still vital and with a twinkle in his eye, at least according to the profiles I read.
I contacted his agent, and as it happened, he called me back a few days later on my cell phone. I didn't recognize the number and had that usual jump of hysteria when an unexpected call comes in and you have small children.
"Excuse me," I said to the 15 year-old kid I was seeing in my office. "I want to make sure that this isn't an emergency."
Upon realizing after answering that I was talking to my hero (or at least the man who played my hero on TV) I kept my composure and told him that though he was not in fact a psychiatrist, the psychiatrist he played would want me to finish with my patient before calling him back. He took this as a compliment, I think.
Later, we talked. He was Sidney, or at least there was something of Sidney in him. He spoke carefully and empathically, and he told me that he was determined that his portrayal of a psychiatrist be a mixture of compassion and humor and respect for emotional pain. I felt like I was talking to a mentor.
So imagine my delight, imagine the chills up my spine last week, as I hiked with my wife in Malibu Canyon just outside Los Angeles and came upon the ambulance in the photo above. We had stumbled like explorers into a bit of my own personal nostalgia. We were staring at the set where they filmed M*A*S*H, the site of my first exposure to psychiatry. I could almost picture Dr. Freedman playing poker in the "swamp" with the other docs.
Here's to you, Dr. Sidney Freedman. Best shrink on television.
Steven Schlozman's first novel, The Zombie Autopsies, was published in March