The classic Korean War-set dramedy series MASH doesn’t have many main women characters. The cast was largely composed of male actors, including Alan Alda as Hawkeye, William Christopher as Father Francis Mulcahy, and Gary Burghoff as Radar. That meant that MASH star Loretta Swit, who played Major Margaret Houlihan for all 11 seasons, was in a class of her own. And she took every opportunity to stand up for herself and her character, as she explained in a new Yahoo! Entertainment interview. She even spoke out against Margaret’s nickname, “Hot Lips,” eventually convincing the show’s writers to stop using it almost completely in their scripts. Read on to find out what the now-85-year-old had to say about the casual sexism she fought and the legacy of the beloved show, which came to an end 40 years ago.
MASH the series premiered in 1972, two years after Robert Altman‘s movie version, which was also a hit. In the film, Sally Kellerman played Margaret. Most of the cast was turned over completely for the show; Burghoff is the only major cast member who played the same part in both.
Swit was cast in the part of Margaret after playing a number of guest roles in TV shows, including Hawaii: Five-O, Mission: Impossible, and Mannix. The Yahoo! interview notes that Swit has still never seen the MASH movie, though she was good friends with her big-screen counterpart Kellerman until Kellerman’s death last year.
In the movie version, other officers at the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital start calling Margaret “Hot Lips” after a steamy encounter with surgeon Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) ends up being broadcast over the PA system. (She’s also referred to this way in the 1968 novel that inspired it.) The nickname persisted through much of the TV show, though Swit always found it to be reductive.
“She was so much more than a piece of anatomy,” Swit told Yahoo! “I kept telling the writers, ‘She’s more than this.'”
As Yahoo! notes, the nickname “Hot Lips” was used less frequently on the show after Season 5, though it did reemerge occasionally.
Margaret and Frank’s (Larry Linville in the series) romance was a big plot point in the early seasons of the show, but Swit didn’t buy that it would realistically go on for much longer.
“I would tell the writers that we could not continue the relationship I had with Frank,” the actor said. “They were writing Margaret as an intelligent, capable nurse and a great leader, but here she was having an affair with a bumbling doctor who had the other doctors had no respect for. It was difficult to keep justifying that relationship.”
She explained that she actually pitched Margaret returning from Tokyo engaged to be married to another man to the writers in a conference call during the summer hiatus.
“I told them: ‘Can you imagine what fun you’re going to have with Larry when I come back to town and I tell him I’m engaged? He’ll rip the doors off of the mess tent!'” she remembered. “And that’s exactly what they had him do. So we were all of the same mind.”
In the record-smashing finale of MASH, Margaret decides to leave the army and go to work in a hospital in the U.S. Even more eyebrow raising, she does it because her father advised her to.
“I didn’t think that was correct for my Margaret,” Swit told Yahoo! “For me, she was off to the next war. Margaret is military, just like Potter [Harry Morgan]. I think her next move was Vietnam. So I didn’t agree with that, but that’s what they wanted her to do.”
She believes that one reason behind Margaret’s ending being written that way is because there may have been plans to center her in a spinoff. This never happened—the show just spun off into AfterMASH and Trapper John, M.D., which had already premiered when the original show was still on the air.
Swit said she wasn’t asked by the writers where she thought her character might end up after the show, but she was honored to be tasked with composing Margaret’s speech to her fellow nurses herself.
“I was consumed with writing that,” Swit said. “And I still get letters from women all over the world who became nurses because of Margaret Houlihan. To have contributed to someone’s life like that is remarkable.”