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Lured Back for One Last Great Role

Mike Boehm is a Times staff writer

Retirement is painless for actor Allan Arbus. In fact, the veteran of an 11-year hitch on television’s “MASH” says it has been a delight.

But nearing his 83rd birthday, Arbus, after a year out of action, has set aside music-filled days of leisure to play one last part he could not resist. He will be Gregory Solomon, the extraordinary 89-year-old furniture dealer in Arthur Miller’s “The Price.”

“This is hell, but I’m not sorry,” Arbus said before a recent rehearsal for the Laguna Playhouse production, which begins previews Tuesday before opening on Saturday.

Arbus is a small, sharp-featured man with a scruff of beard, a thick, curly head of hair, and a refined and deliberate way of speaking--not exactly guarded, but precise and considered. He was not confessing to strain or second thoughts; it’s just that rehearsals were at what he calls the “awkward stage” before costumes, scenery and decisions on how the actors will move onstage have been worked out to give a clear picture of what will emerge.

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“The Price,” first seen in 1968 and revived last year on Broadway, is crafted like a sturdy, well-designed piece of furniture--perhaps not unlike some of the prime items Solomon covets in the attic full of long-abandoned stuff that provides the play’s setting and triggers its action.

Estranged brothers Victor and Walter Franz have come to dispose of the hoard of furnishings that belonged to their father. The market crash of 1929 had cost him his fortune and his will to keep working and striving. To support his father, Victor sacrificed a chance to pursue his passion for science. Now the middle-aged New York City cop is stuck in mediocrity, boredom and resentment, and is losing the respect of his money- and status-obsessed wife. Walter, unencumbered by any sense of responsibility to the family, has gone on to become a wealthy, accomplished surgeon.

Reunited after 16 years, the brothers dig uneasily through their past until the price each has paid for his choices becomes plain. This happens as they wrangle over the price that Solomon, the dealer, should receive for the load of furniture.

No mere engine of plot, Solomon is a humorous, insightful, sympathetic yet ultimately helpless onlooker as the unresolvable family turmoil plays out. He also stands, in contrast to Victor and Walter’s father, as a life force who never gives up, having picked himself up after each knockdown through a long life of struggle.

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Now he yearns to answer the bell for one more round. “I love to work,” Solomon says. He has been moldering in a solitary retirement but wants desperately to close a deal for the attic’s contents so he can work again.

Arbus says Miller’s stage direction introducing Solomon distills why the character is worth coming out of retirement to play: “Enter Gregory Solomon. In brief, a phenomenon.”

“He is very clever, sort of an actor himself,” Arbus says. “He’s very intelligent, he’s very funny, he’s not without human feeling, and the way he disarms and seduces people he’s dealing with I just found fascinating.”

Director Richard Stein offered the part to Arbus without an audition. At first, the actor hesitated because of a scheduling conflict. But he reread the play, which he never has seen, and grabbed what he says is “a role of a lifetime.”

Make that a role of half-a-lifetime. Arbus didn’t start acting full time until he was 51. Before that, he was an A-list fashion photographer. He emerged during the late 1940s shooting for magazines in a close working partnership with his wife, Diane Arbus. After they separated in 1959, she went on to do landmark work, making pictures that cast a stark, revealing, but deeply human eye on midgets, freaks, nudists, transvestites, Down syndrome patients and others on society’s fringes.

They met when he was a low-level, 18-year-old employee in the advertising department of a big New York City department store. Diane Nemerov was the owner’s daughter.

“She came in and announced that she was very well-read,” Arbus recalls of their first meeting at the store. “It just knocked me on my heels. It seemed such an amazing thing for a 13-year-old child to say.”

Arbus remained close to her after their split, according to Patricia Bosworth’s 1984 biography, “Diane Arbus.” Suffering from poor health and depression, Diane Arbus committed suicide in 1971.

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After “The Price,” Arbus plans a trip to New York to sift through some photos with Doon, the oldest of his three daughters, who is mounting a massive Diane Arbus exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art scheduled for September 2003.

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Arbus says he yearned to be an actor from his early teens, when he had a moment of special clarity while playing in a student production at DeWitt Clinton High School.

“I realized there were a thousand people in the auditorium, and everybody in that auditorium was in sync. It was a feeling of unity which I’d never experienced.”

But he didn’t know how to find professional acting opportunities, and he needed to make a living. He taught his wife (he pronounces her name “Dee-ann,” as she preferred) photography, and they opened a studio together after his discharge from the Army at the end of World War II.

Though he was passionate about photography, he said, his acting dream still flickered. As a hobby, Arbus would tape himself reading Shakespearean parts. An actor friend heard his rendition of Richard II’s speeches and pointed him toward acting teacher Mira Rostova. For 11 years, Arbus studied under her, taking occasional off-off-Broadway roles and small film parts (his first was playing a doctor in the 1961 dance-craze exploitation picture, “Hey, Let’s Twist”). In 1969, he quit photography and moved to California with his second wife, actress Mariclare Costello.

Writer-director Robert Downey Sr. cast Arbus in two strange and enduring cult films, “Putney-Swope” (1969) and “Greaser’s Palace” (1972). Downey thought Arbus was a light-skinned African American when he hired him for “Swope” as Mr. Good News, a bad-news-bearing factotum to a black advertising executive who takes over a Madison Avenue agency and turns it upside down.

Downey says he wrote “Greaser’s Palace” expressly for Arbus. He cast him as a zoot-suited vaudevillian Jesus who parachutes into the Old West and proceeds to have messianic adventures while “on [his] way to Jerusalem to be an actor-singer-dancer.”

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“I knew he’d be this perfect little innocent hipster,” Downey says. “He had a wonderful physicalization, a [special] walk he gave the character.”

Arbus’ hallmark in the two films, Downey says, was an ability to make subtle adjustments from take to take without being asked, giving the director a variety of good options.

“He started acting late in his journey,” he says, “and you could see that [although] he hadn’t been doing it that long, he’d been thinking about it a long time.”

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Joseph Stern, producing artistic director at L.A.'s Matrix Theatre, also values Arbus for his subtle approach. Since 1993, Arbus has played at the Matrix the Governor in George M. Cohan’s farce “The Tavern,” Nagg, one of the dustbin denizens of Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame” and Sam, the chauffeur in Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming.”

“Everything sneaks up on you. The humor becomes very droll, very sly,” Stern says of Arbus’ way of inhabiting a role. “By the end of the evening, you’ve been subtly told a story you didn’t realize you were being told.”

Beyond that, Stern says, Arbus “has the enthusiasm and spirit of a newcomer, a great company spirit” that is evident in his habit of seeing each Matrix show several times--and paying for his tickets.

Arbus says being part of a close company of actors was the highlight of his “MASH” experience playing Dr. Sidney Freedman, a wise psychiatrist who turned up in several episodes each season. Freedman ministered to the mental well-being of the show’s beleaguered Korean War surgeons and treated soldiers whose shellshocked minds were on the blink.

“It was glorious,” he says, “the most friendly, supportive group of people.”

“MASH” star Alan Alda struck up a friendship with Arbus that has continued with periodic dinners and chats. “I always found him exceptionally believable,” Alda says--so much so that during the first season of “MASH” he would talk to Arbus about psychoanalysis, which Alda was reading up on at the time. He assumed that Arbus must have special knowledge about the field.

“After a while I saw this very puzzled look on his face and I realized he was acting,” Alda says. “He had totally convinced me.”

Alda, who scripted the show periodically, says he liked to write for Arbus’ character. He rates an episode called “Dear Sigmund” as one of his favorites. It featured Freedman writing an imaginary letter to Sigmund Freud as he tried to grapple with the suicide of one of his patients.

Arbus retired a year ago after playing a judge on three episodes of “Judging Amy.” Stern, the TV show’s executive producer, recommended Arbus for the part, which Stern says called for “acerbic, Talmudic wisdom.”

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After his run as Gregory Solomon--the character’s Biblical name, signifying wisdom, is not accidental--Arbus intends to go back to his “glorious, free-as-a-bird” routine of reading, walking, going to movies and spending three or four hours a day playing classical piano for his own enjoyment. He says he began playing about 20 years ago after buying a piano on a whim.

The only thing that would prolong his stage comeback, Arbus says, would be an offer to play Richard II. “And that isn’t going to happen. He’s nowhere near my age.”

If this is his swan song, Arbus will go out laughing, in a complex closing scene that affords him a chance to leave audiences with an indelible memory of Solomon.

“He’s laughing at the human comedy,” Arbus says. “He’s laughing at life, he’s laughing at the ironies of life, he’s laughing at the pathetic-ness of life. It’s a big, complicated laugh.”

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“THE PRICE,” Laguna Playhouse’s Moulton Theater, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Dates: Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Previews Tuesday-Friday, including 2 p.m. Thursday. Ends Feb. 4. Prices: $24-$43. Phone: (949) 497-2787.


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