I recently interviewed Loretta Swit for a “10 questions” interview and a Deseret News feature commemorating the 35th anniversary of the “M*A*S*H” finale. Swit played the role of Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan.
This lengthy excerpt includes Swit’s touching memories about her castmates (she refers to them repeatedly as “family”) from “M*A*S*H.
Swit possesses a unique combination of self-awareness, quiet confidence, genuine humor, and a breathtaking ability to trust others with her emotions. She puts these qualities to work as an activist for animals and recently published, “SwitHeart: The Watercolour Artistry & Animal Activism of Loretta Swit.”
Kurt Manwaring: 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.”
— Alan Alda (@alanalda) March 7, 2018
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.