by Janet I. Martineau
Ask Loretta Swit if she is weary of forever being identified as Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan of “M*A*S*H” fame and she, well, gets a little testy -- just like Hot Lips herself.
|Loretta Swit in a 2006 photo|
Despite the fact she has acted in more than 40 television and theatrical movies and still leads an active life in live theater?
“To always be best remembered for a show that was a phenomenon,” she huffs followed by a withering glance. “What do you mean? A long-running classic that was so exceptional, written so well, its ensemble so gifted? One of the most honored shows ever on TV?
“It’s terrific. Nothing wrong with that.”
So it went when Swit took a few minutes to talk backstage before her appearance Tuesday at the Horizons Town Talk series in Saginaw Township -- and having to fly out soon after her speech because she had to perform in a play in Chicago that same night.
She went on to further note that when its final episode aired on Feb. 28, 1983, after an 11-year run on CBS, the U.S. House and Senate shut down so members could watch. Fans gathered for “M*A*S*H” parties in bars and restaurants that night. And all across the United States, sewer systems struggled when, at commercial breaks, an estimated 125 million viewers ran to their bathrooms.
“Ever since we began in 1972, ‘M*A*S*H’ has never been off the air. By the third season we began syndicating the series and it has never stopped. We are in our third generation of viewers, of fans, now. Of people who were not yet born when we were shooting the show.”
So no, she is not tired of always being linked to the dark sitcom set in a 1950s Korean War Mobile Army Surgical Hospital medical unit. And she is not alone. Lucille Ball was always linked to “I Love Lucy” and James Arness to “Gunsmoke” and Msrlon Brando to “The Godfather,” she said, despite having varied other credits.
Swit, 74 now, was one of only three cast members with the series from its pilot to its finale. And she ranks second only to Alan Alda as Hawkeye as appearing in the most episodes -- 260 for him and 243 for her.
She recalls creator Larry Gelbart saying to her in the first season or two “we don’t know where we are going with you, your character, yet but please stick with us as we develop.”
What that ultimately meant, she said, was that the stable of scriptwriters “observed us and got to know us well, as ourselves” and then worked some of that into the characters. She, for example, said Swit, is a long-time animal rights activist so, came an episode, when the camp dog is killed by a jeep “and Hot Lips, always so together, loses it.”
|The "M*A*S*H" cast|
The writers also, she said, allowed the actors to look over a script and then offer their opinions if something did not ring true. “I would say, ‘This is how I see her going’ and they would change it.”
Few fans may have known, but the writers also kept interviewing real-life Korean War “M*A*S*H” unit doctors and nurses through the years “so many of the episodes were based on real stories.
There was one where Hawkeye and Trapper John (Wayne Rogers) were doing surgery on a critically wounded soldier and while they were at it they gave him a smaller nose. Based on a true story.
“My landscape artist told me about a soldier, a concert pianist, who had lost an arm in that war and we turned it into a story where (cast member and classical music fan) David Ogden Stiers brought the soldier in sheet music for one-handed players.”
And while some critics might have thought the antics of the doctors and the nurses were a little over the top, “some of the Korean War doctors told us we were not insane enough.”
As for Hot Lips, the head nurse of the unit, fans often said they wished she had a better sense of humor. So the writers created a visit by a classmate who recalled Houlihan as a cut-up, zany and fun-loving “until she was put in charge of 25 nurses, in a combat zone, all of whom had to to work at their zenith and she felt she had to protect.”
That, says Swit, was the hallmark of the show -- zaniness yes but also deeply human. Humor and enlightenment. Showcasing for the first time, she said, doctors who did not cure everything, did not always have the answere and often lost patients.
“It showed how ugly war is and characters so crazed by everything they did crazy things.”
From day one, she says, the cast bonded and always accepted added newcomers readily. “Alan once got us T-shirts that read ‘The Happiest Crew in Town.’ And we were. It was like no other set. It was like an ongoing party. I don’t have any bad memories in those 11 years.
Her animal activist “career” is a vast one -- encompassing at least a dozen organizations from training search/rescue dogs to dealing with caged farm animals, puppy mills, abandoned exotic pets.
“I don’t eat them and I don’t wear them,” she says with conviction. “We murder a million cats and dogs a year (in homeless shelters) so we don’t need puppy and kitten mills; we need to educate about spaying and neutering. Pet stores should not sell animals. We need to adopt them.
“There is a lot out there that people do not realize, so I work in educating them. I’m also an artist, and one of my pantings, called ‘The Rookie,” is about labrador puppies who are trained as search and rescue animals. It sells for $200 (at www.SwitHeart.com) and helps fund a training center in California.”