The 1983 finale of MASH is still one of the most watched American programs—and the most-watched scripted show—of all time. And one actor who can say she was on every season of the armed forces series is Loretta Swit, who played Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan. Swit was the only woman lead on the show, and her character was the head nurse at an army hospital during the Korean War. While Major Houlihan was somewhat one-dimensional at first, she grew and changed as the show went on—thanks to Swit. She told the Toronto Star in 2010, “The guys in control would say to me ‘It’s just an episodic,’ and I would say ‘If you’ve got a long-run series then there’s always got to be room for growth.’ Of all the places you’d be inclined to grow, I certainly think somewhere you’re in danger every day and healing people every day would be just the right place.”
Swit will always be remembered for playing Hot Lips, but her career has expanded far beyond the classic series. The now 84-year-old is also an accomplished theater actor and has devoted herself to animal activism. Read on to find out more about her life today.
Swit appeared in various TV shows and movies before and after her time on MASH, including Gunsmoke, Hawaii Five-0, The Love Boat, and Murder, She Wrote. Her most recent on-screen appearance was the 2019 movie Play the Flute. She’s also done a lot of acting on stage, appearing in plays such as Same Time, Next Year, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, The Vagina Monologues, and Mame. And she’s still acting today. In November and December 2021, she was in the play Middletown in Coral Gables, Florida.
“The audience, in my opinion, is always your most important partner,” she told Broadway World in November 2021. “They communicate what they want from you. That’s what makes live theatre so exciting. Everyone is participating.”
Swit is passionate about animal rights and founded SwitHeart Animal Alliance. Her website reads, “I set up SweetHeart Animal Alliance to prevent cruelty and end animal suffering, to promote and cooperate with numerous nonprofit organizations and programs that protect, rescue, train, and care for animals and preserve their habitat, while raising public awareness about issues that concern domestic, farm, exotic, wild, and native animals and their well being.”
Swit mentioned her love of animals in the Toronto Star interview, as well. She listed Mahatma Gandhi as someone who inspires her and explained, “I am so committed to animal rights activism and I always think of his quote, ‘The true test of a nation’s greatness lies in the way they treat their animals.'”
Swit has released two books, which are both related to art. First, there is A Needlepoint Scrapbook, a book of needlepoint designs released in 1986. Then, there’s SwitHeart: The Watercolour Artistry & Animal Activism of Loretta Swit. Released in 2017, the book is full of her watercolor paintings of animals and sales benefit animal charities.
The cast and creators of MASH reflected on their time working on the show in an oral history for The Hollywood Reporter in 2018. Swit summed up how she feels about the show by quoting a piece of fan mail. “I’m going to paraphrase what someone wrote in a telegram when we ended the show,” she said. “It said, ‘Dear M*A*S*H folk: You made me laugh. You made me cry. You made me feel. Thank you.” I’ve never forgotten that. That’s one hell of a legacy.”