Loretta Swit touched the hearts of millions of fans with her portrayal of Hot Lips Houlihan on MASH. Nearly four decades after the series aired, the talented actress looks back on the hit television series. In this interview, Loretta Swit talks about how she became an actor and shares rare stories from the behind the scenes of MASH.
Get access to behind-the-scenes pictures and stories in The Complete Book of M*A*S*H.
How did Loretta Swit first become involved in M*A*S*H?
Loretta Swit: It wasn’t the ordinary way of going up for a job, so to speak—going to meet with the director or whomever, the casting director, to see about playing a role in a movie or whatever. So that is kind of the ordinary route you take.
What changes this a little bit is that in Hawaii, doing “Hawaii Five-O,” a two-parter, I was away for like 15, 20 days. And I missed all the news about the pilot they were going to do for “M*A*S*H.” And I did not see the movie, so I came back to the mainland in the blind. I didn’t know, really, what I was going up for. I didn’t know much about the character.
At a certain point, I think, they take for granted you’re an actor and you can handle it. So then they start looking for, you know, kind of you have what have, what you bring to it. Do you fit the picture they have and what have you.
Anyway, unbeknownst to me, CBS recommended me and 20th Century Fox had recommended me. And Burt Metcalfe who had been casting at Universal recommended me. So I was coming in with some strong recommendations.
I had done a film for 20th Century Fox and it was received very well. And they remembered that.
Most of the work I had done when I came from New York had been on CBS. So CBS was very familiar with my work.
And there you have it.
I was in the blind but they were kind of informed about me. We chatted nicely and joked around a bit. It was very comfortable.
And I had no idea how important it would be in my life. And I came home thinking, “That was fun; that was nice. I’d like to work with these people.”
And that’s kind of it. They didn’t have pages even for me to read. They didn’t have anything. It was just, hello, let’s talk and see if we like the tone of your voice.
In the interim between when I auditioned and the dates of the pilot, my agent had an offer for me from Universal to do a movie with Olivia de Havilland — which of course thrilled me beyond since I was a relentless fan of Olivia de Havilland. I thought, “Wow!”
He said, “Well, the dates of the movie conflict with the dates of the pilot so I’m going to call Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart and tell them that we’ve had an offer and feel we want to accept. But we’re giving them dibs.” They had you on a hold for those dates until they decided they’re not going to use the person.
So he called and Gene said, “This is serendipitous because we were about to call you and say we decided to go with Loretta. Don’t give her away to the movie. We want her.”
And that’s how the whole thing came about.
I have a couple funny stories that I think fans would enjoy.
I think it was in the beauty parlor under a dryer or something and my agent called to say that he had the contracts and would I stop by to sign them.
He said, very casually, “They’re the standard seven-year contracts,” and I gasped.
I said, “Seven years!”
Who would sign a contract for seven years for a script I don’t know anything about? So, I was a little thrown.
He said, and I quote, “Lori, nothing runs for seven years.”
In the years to come we laughed.
The funny thing he said was, “If you’re unhappy they’ll let you out.” That’s not quite true.
What is “M*A*S*H” about?
Loretta Swit: “M*A*S*H” is about, I think, the resilience, the courage, and the patriotism. The delicate nature of man. It’s about loyalty. It’s about how a bad situation — a deadly situation — can sometimes bring out the best in human beings and make you proud of your species.
“M*A*S*H” is about people: doctors, nurses, patients, military men.
It’s about people — and it’s about particular people. I worked with a family of brilliant performers and lovely human beings. We had, for the most part, the same politics, the same values. We just became a tight-knit family.
That was a part of what was going on on-camera as well as off-camera. And I think a lot of that makes for the quality of the show, the quality of those characters.
I don’t like to give myself the credit for this. But Harry Morgan, who was everybody’s favorite — everybody loved Harry better than anything — Harry said, in an interview, somebody asked him if “M*A*S*H” had made him a better actor.
He said, “I don’t know about that. I’ll tell you one thing. It made me a better human being.”
I think that’s probably true.
There’s this one sentence about “M*A*S*H.” I do think it was never a sitcom, which is a word they used to give it.
I think there’s a different category for “M*A*S*H”.” We certainly weren’t ha-ha funny, knee-slapping, hilarious funny.
We were sometimes showing you war and the OR and Pre-Op and Post-Op. And none of it was really very funny. Some of it was devastating.
So I think that really always the writers and producers, the production values were always such a high quality.
I went to Korea, actually after “M*A*S*H.” And while I was there, I was having déjà vu —which is ridiculous because I’d never been to Korea.
But there I was sitting on property looking up and seeing the exact hillside that we able to achieve in the mountains on Mulholland Drive. It looked just like that opening shot. Vintage helicopters. It was so real. It was just terribly real.
It remains where it was. It was the 50s, it was Korea, and that’s why I think it’s kind of a classic. It’s not dated. That’s what it was. Those are the uniforms of the people.
It was very, very special. And it just was in a category of its own. It was “M*A*S*H.”
I think the family of viewers have adopted and adapted. The fact that fans that follow us through the years only kind of proves that. We were babies for a lot of people. To think that a seven-year-old child who was raised on it turned 21 and maybe has his or her own child and at this point after 45 or 50 years there are great-grandchildren. I mean, it’s passed on.
That’s our legacy. It keeps getting passed on. Which kind of proves the values and humanity. It was very human, humane.
I’m a fan. If I weren’t in “M*A*S*H”. . .
What character did Loretta Swit play and how did she evolve over the years?
Loretta Swit: I played Margaret Houlihan—Major Margaret Houlihan, nicknamed “Hot Lips.”
Better might be an example than words about how she evolved.
We did an interview show with Clete Roberts who came to interview the MASH unit. One of his questions was, “How did you feel serving out here so closely has changed you?”
Bill Christopher said, “In the winter, by the fire, if you don’t know this, Korea is the coldest place on earth and in the summer it’s the hottest.”
Those things are true. The killer during the Korean conflict was cold. It chilled the war. The second thing was snakebites. So you had snakebites and the war.
So Bill Christopher was saying, in the winter when it’s so cold you can hardly feel your hands, in the OR the doctors will put their hands over an open wound to get the heat from the body.
And he said that will change a man.
You see things like that, you cannot help but be changed. And that answers the question, why do you feel it changed or did it change.
How can you expose all of us to getting up at three, four in the morning, standing in blood for hours with no rest, no sleep, things that you need desperately, helping patients, feeling so fatigued. How you ought to be changed by the experience and what happened in the long run is we began to feel the effects.
There wasn’t just the same thing over and over, which I think is quote “sitcommy.” But the realism is you cannot help but be changed by that experience.
Were you allowed to determine what your character would say in that episode?
Loretta Swit: Some, some. Certainly you could adlib and add our own things and so forth. They would compose. They would write it around our thoughts. Or we would, if we thought of something while we were shooting, just say it.
The writers trusted us.
Walk us through a typical day on the set of MASH.
Loretta Swit: It’s an early call. You’re on the set in makeup and costume by 8am. I used to get up at 6am. I liked going to the set early. It was something very magical for me. It was quiet and lit my lamps. It wasn’t sort of daylight, it was more magic time.
It was quiet. You would run into sorts of actors getting ready for their stuff for the page. It was lovely. I would go to my dressing room and get everything pulled together, get dressed and go to makeup.
Harry (Morgan) was always early. He couldn’t wait to get there, you know. That’s the truth.
How many hours did you put in on a typical day?
Loretta Swit: Like eight, nine. It varied.
If we didn’t finish — and we rarely did — we put certain scenes at the end of the day and we called those, “slopped-over.” And then we would have one day, maybe in two weeks, called a slop day. You did all those scenes that you didn’t get to. They were from different episodes.
Very challenging. You had to remember where you are. In my case, my hairdresser had to remember, was the hair up, down, inside the cap, or whatever.
It was great. It was challenging. It was fun and it was challenging. It was good.
I just thought, you know, sometimes you felt that way when you did looping. Sometimes you could actually do your performance better if given time and distance.
But there’s always the challenge that keeps it fresh and keeps you interested.
For me, it was always the writers. I thought the writers were everything. They would come up with all these new ideas, they would come up with matching different characters. What would happen if?
If it were Margaret’s birthday and she wanted to go to Japan and Klinger is going to drive her to the airport and he gets a flat or he runs out of gas or whatever.
What would happen if they have to spend the night, these two antagonistic characters? How would she handle it on her birthday?
And then they write. They get that idea and then they explode. And they would have things like that.
What would happen if Hawkeye and Trapper were off together in some fashion over the telephone. They were fighting through the telephone for different reasons but both involving family. And they would write about the differences of family each character had.
They were such brilliant ideas to spring from. We never got bored. The audience never got bored. I used to say, we never knew what to expect.
That’s as close to life as you get. You don’t know what you can expect.
Hindsight is such a gift that you can learn from. I always overall have to credit — don’t get me wrong, the actors were the best — but I think the writers, you can’t do it without the words. You can’t be wonderful without those wonderful words.
It was a phenomenal time as an actor to be in the presence of that.
Did Alan Alda bring out the best in you in his capacity as a writer and director?
Loretta Swit: I would say that about everybody on this show. We brought out the best in each other. And not only the actors. All the directors who came, all the writers who gave us the words.
Or vice versa.
I read that (Larry) Gelbart said that I always surprised him, when he was writing those words he never meant it that way and yet when I said it that way he couldn’t imagine it being any other way.
So that’s the community we had. That’s the bond.
I was at rehearsal where you could hear someone say, “Wait a minute, this line is not mine,” or, “She wouldn’t say that,” or, “He wouldn’t say that.” Or someone would say, “That’s a better Radar line,” and Gary (Burghoff) would say, “Yeah, I think it is.”
No competition, except with yourself — the best you can be. You know, better than yesterday.
There was no fighting for more lines or more screen time. Just to say it is an absurdity. It never applied to what went on on our set. It was one for all, all for one.
“M*A*S*H” was the star as far as everyone was concerned.
It is a family. That’s exactly what we are.
Let’s do a series of rapid-fire response questions. What is the first memory that comes to mind when I say the following names?
Loretta Swit: Extraordinary. Blazing. Does everything.
He wrote, he directed, he was a child star from when he was very young. He did it all.
He and Larry Gelbart made up an absolutely impeccable genius team. How lucky can an actor get to have those people in charge?
I mean, Gene and Larry went to California for scouting locations. That’s how we wound up with those mountains in Mulholland. We had that hillside.
They were perfectionists — in the nicest sense of the word — doing absolutely their best.
Loretta Swit: Larry and I worked with each other more than almost anybody else. Well, he was the butt of jokes in the swamp. Larry would go off while they were rehearsing the scenes and Larry and I would work out our scenes like you would in a schoolroom. “Why don’t we do this? Why don’t we try this?”
We would develop this, that, or the other thing and then when the director was looking for us, we would go into what we called our “green room,” which was a couple of green chairs.
We would sort of show what we had worked on, and invariably, ten times out of ten, the director would say, “That’s great! Do it that way!”
Most of the directors who would visit would say to us, “There’s no way I’m going to tell you guys how to do something. You’ve been doing these characters for a long time.”
What lovely, lovely directors we had. Real pros.
Charles Dubin, Jackie Cooper, Earl Bellamy. I could go on.
Larry and I had a very, very special relationship with each other.
Funny, and yet a great dramatic master. He did, oft times, he would go and do Shakespeare. Larry was a wonderful, wonderful talent.
Loretta Swit: That’s my big brother. You’re talking about my big brother. Mike is so dear to me, I can’t just rapid-fire his qualities.
Probably one of the best human beings I’ve ever met in my life.
We used to say that he was all “caused-out.” He was into good views and you know, he still is. Of course, the battering ram for the Death Penalty Focus. And he has achieved amazing successes and never stops trying to improve life on our planet.
I mean, he has views, and I’m trying to think what Alan (Alda) said. Yes, “He has integrity and should be continued on to the next person.”
Mike is just a very, very special human being.
You can go to him with a problem and he’d help me straighten it out. I could always count on Mike to give me the best, fairest advice on something.
He doesn’t pull punches. You ask him and he’s going to tell you what he thinks.
In a town that tends towards hyperbole, if you go to him looking for a compliment you might get a, “I, uh, well, it wasn’t the best work I’ve seen you do.”
But you see, if you get this kind of honesty and he says, “That was superb!” then you know it’s not hype.
Of all his qualities, his sense of truth and honesty. He’s sincere. And he’s married to my best friend, so. . .
Loretta Swit: Oh, Gary! Even in reality, we hadn’t made the adjustment to Gary’s being a man. He was a mature man married with children. But he’s just so — he did Radar well.
In my mind’s eye, he’s still that little boy with the cap sleeping with a Teddy Bear. He was just so much that character. He enveloped the character so incredibly. Just amazing.
He was with that character the longest of all of us with ours. He came from the movie — the only actor who came from the movie.
We did two scenes together that Gary and I cannot watch without being hysterical. They were so funny. We would call each other on the phone and laugh. The combination of Margaret and Radar is bound to give you a laugh.
He walked into my tent once and I accused him of looking at my legs. It turned out to be one of the funniest — I mean, I was crying. I was laughing so hard.
So the next morning, I was looking forward to seeing if it was actually as funny as we thought because we had stomach pains from laughing.
So I ran into (Larry) Gelbart and we were talking, and I said, “By the way, Gary and I did a scene yesterday that’s possibly the funniest thing we’ve ever done — ever, ever.”
He said, “We’ll watch it together.”
And I said, “Oh, the kiss of death!”
And he sat next to me and he laughed so hard he hit my knee and my leg went flying off like when you test somebody. We were screaming, and to this day when I watch it in reruns — I mean “M*A*S*H” is in marathons all over every day — and I when I see that scene, I still laugh. It’s just, I mean the way they cut it, and Gary — oh, he was just extraordinary, so brilliant. His eyes are wide peeking through the glasses and I’m saying, “Stop looking at my leg.”
And he’s, “I’m not!” And then in the same breath, “I am.”
I have memories with Gary that are so joyous and so funny.
Missing him more often.
Some of us are closer, but Gary refuses to fly. It’s difficult to get a hold of him down in one place where we can all gather.
Gary goes from Connecticut to Florida depending on the season. He will not fly.
So I don’t get to see him as often as, let’s say I can see Mike (Farrell) or Jamie (Farr), you know.
Loretta Swit: My favorite. If you had to take a poll and ask, “Who in all the family was your favorite,” they’d say, Harry Morgan.
Harry was everything. He was a father figure. He was an actor. He was an imp. He was a Menehune.
He could make us laugh. I saw Mike Farrell devolve into tears, lying on the floor, laughing at Harry.
Divine. Funny. Bright. Super, super bright.
I spent a lot of time with him off-camera. He and his wife, Elieen, and the three of us on a weekend would go — there’s a place on Sunset Blvd and Harry loves the place — and we walked in, and it seemed like he knew everyone.
He was perfect. The perfect comrade.
Loretta Swit: What can I say about Alan that hasn’t been said or written? Him and I were teasing. My favorite description of Alan. And I’ve said this to his face: “You are such a child.” You know, because his humor is so young and infectious.
He’s super bright. I mean, his deep interest in things that are scientific. He always wanted to be a writer. Enjoyed acting, but he always wanted to be a writer.
When he won his Emmy for writing, when he did his cartwheel at the Emmy’s, he felt he achieved in acting for many years, but now he felt he was writing and doing something he always wanted to do and really enjoyed doing.
He has written several books and I can’t think of more fun that I could have for a day than to have it with Alan and Arlene. Delightful. Delicious.
It’s so much fun to be with people so deeply in love after fifty-three years, I think it is.
It’s delicious. Part of that — I used to babysit the girls. Not Eve. Let’s say I was dismissed early. And let’s say that Alan, Evie, and Liz and I have dinner that night somewhere. This is when Alan was still commuting on planes. He worked in California, but the family was in Lincoln Park, New Jersey. Arlene and Eve were home. Alan had to work late, so I told the girls to come home with me and we would snack and watch movies.
I feel a part of his family — what happens to them and how many grandchildren he has. I think we all feel that way.
Again, I keep referring to us as a family. We really are.
More than just keeping in touch, we want to know what’s going on. And if there’s a problem, we want to know what to do to help, or what have you.
Loretta Swit: Larry is my friend the genius. Boy, there was nobody like Larry. He really was the last in genius comedy writing.
He was leaning on a cart, so I walked in one day. As I walked over to him, I said, “Hi Lar!” And I caught him in the middle of a yawn. He’d just gotten to work and he was yawning. And he said, “Oh, excuse me. It must have been something I wrote.”
Now, I don’t think it was a new joke. It was so quick. He felt so comfortable joking. Just funny, wonderful.
We used to love when we were watching dailies. He brought me this super pack of Dentyne. And there was a little note — Larry left a note — and it said, “Stuck on you.”
He was a genius and he was good for me, as was Pat. They found me when we did things at the Writer’s Guild, the three of us were together. Again, it’s a continuation of the family.
He was very encouraging. The first, I would say two seasons, the writers were fooling around trying to find a place for Margaret in this male-oriented, male-dominated show. It was shortly after the pilot, Larry said, “You know, we don’t know where we’ll be going with her yet and we’re going to talk to you and it depends a lot on what you can do to help us to see where she’s going.”
He said, “But please hang in. Hang in. We’ll find her. You and the guys and I. We’ll find her, so don’t go anywhere.”
And I said, “Oh no, no. This is where I want to be. You got me.”
And he laughed.
As I mentioned another time, he was very complimentary about my treatment with words and how I used them.
I used to say in interviews, there was no way you could miss saying Gelbart lines. You didn’t have to do anything. All you did was say it. That’s all. That’s it. And move on.
Now, I used to give as an example. We were in the Officer’s Club with Larry Linville — Frank Burns — Margaret and Frank. I think it was McLean (Stevenson) and his very, very young friend, Kathy Baumann.
Frank was making an absolute fool of himself trying to be ingratiating. He was just babbling. And I gave him one of the famous Margaret Houlihan sayings where she just looks at you with darts in her eyes.
And he gradually sort of stopped babbling and he said, “I was just making conversation.”
And Gelbart had me say, “Try making it with your mouth shut.”
You cannot miss with lines like that. All you do is say it.
And that was his genius. His words to say, you couldn’t miss.
“Tootsie” is a fabulous example of the way his mind worked. Oh god, I so miss him.
He’s a genius.
David Ogden Stiers
Loretta Swit: My David, my dear David. I was lucky with some of these guys to have one-on-one — fatally, desperately — these scenes as I had with Larry and David.
I had this piece when he died that Alan came to me and said, “I want to put this on a Twitter account. May I?” And I said, “Sure.”
About David, I would tease him. He was very reclusive. Very private. He wouldn’t mix and mingle the way we all did. He was a very private person. I don’t mean he didn’t laugh and gag with us. He was a prankster.
But we didn’t even have his phone number.
I would tease him relentlessly about this. “What if I wanted to get in touch with you? What if I’m having a party and I want to invite you and I can’t even phone you?”
To which he would reply, “Supposing I would attend such an affair.” He would do Winchester.
In fact, in the final, “Goodbye, Farewell, (and Amen),” they wrote a scene wherein David is going to give me this book of poetry I felt he took back — I thought it was a gift and he said, “No, it was only a book,”—and he removed it and took it. I didn’t forgive him. I kept saying he stole my book and whatever. And so we’re saying goodbye, farewell, and amen, and the writers wrote that Winchester was to return the book to Margaret.
Which by itself is touching. But what David did in the scene, he gave me the book. And I open the book and there’s a note from David with his phone number.
I had been teasing him about not having his phone number, and in “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen,” when Winchester returns a book to Margaret, David gave me a camera and I opened it and it has his phone number in the book.
Now, we’re still shooting, “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen,” and there’s a scene where I get into the book, and I turn around and David looks at me and puts his hand on his heart and I drive off.
That’s my way of trying to think about my relationship with David. It was very, very special.
I keep using that word because these men that I worked with, these people I worked with—extraordinary people, so special in their right — each one of them just amazing.
And there I was. Gelbart would say I was a rose among thorns.
He was also a very good friend to Mike Farrell. And Mike actually became our conduit when he fell ill.
Loretta Swit: Jamie, what was so extraordinary is that Jamie is a clothes horse. He’s the best among us. My brother would call and say, “Tell Jamie he was the best dresser on the show.”
And I would tell my brother, “You mean except for me?”
And he’d say, “No, I mean Jamie was the best dresser on the show.”
So he’s coming to work every day in Scarlet O’Hara outfits and babushkas. Some of the best of “M*A*S*H” was when Jamie went into Potter’s office with some crazy idea of how he was going to get out of the Army.
When he came in in a peasant’s babushka pregnant, I mean, give me a break! And Jamie carried it off. Jamie made it work. It’s so ludicrous and here was this wonderful actor who off-camera is such a snazzy, GQ — I used to call him the “Cover of GQ” — Jamie and I are very, very close.
My mom — Jamie was my mother’s favorite. Out-and-out, Jamie was her favorite. We would spend Christmas and New Year’s with Jamie and his family. And that’s where she wanted to go.
And Jamie, such a lovely human being. My mom was at the Motion Picture home when I was in New York. And Jamie would go and visit her. He’s just an extraordinary person.
I’m just very close with this family that — 50 years later it’s been — we’ve only gotten closer because we have suffered losses. And we’ve had to turn inside and out and comfort each other.
You know, we lost Larry. We lost Wayne. We lost Harry. And now David. And Bill.
But it brings families closer together sometimes because you realize how fragile that thread is that we’re hanging onto.
Loretta Swit: Bill, Bill. There was never a casting that was better done than getting Bill Christopher to play Father Mulcahey—the priest who had everything. A sense of humor.
We would go around imitating Bill. He was so perfect. There was one episode where he said, “jocularity!”
We’d look at each other and say, “Jocularity! Jocularity!”
Oh, golly. What do you say about a guy that is such a delicious priest he made you want to go to the church. He was so perfect. He was sitting in his chair studying Greek.
Close again to his family, to Barbara, and now that Bill’s gone, we still keep Barbara in the family.
It’s hard to explain, but it’s a family.
It’s made me cry and I’m going to say goodbye. Do justice with my beautiful family. Bye for now.