Loretta Swit Interview: "M*A*S*H" Star Combines Art and Animal Activism in "SwitHeart"
Image attributed to Loretta Swit
Equally versatile at comedy and drama, Loretta Swit is best known for her portrayal of Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, Major Frank Burns’ love interest on the TV series M*A*S*H (1972-1983), adopted from the 1970 feature film M*A*S*H. Other television appearances include Mannix, Gunsmoke, Hawaii Five-O, Bonanza, Ironside, Cagney & Lacey (TV movie), Murder, She Wrote and Diagnosis Murder.
In 1967, Swit toured with the national company of Any Wednesday, starring Gardner McKay, and was in a Los Angeles run of The Odd Couple with Don Rickles and Ernest Borgnine. Film work includes Stand Up and Be Counted, Freebie and the Bean, Race with the Devil, Hell Hath No Fury and A Killer Among Friends.
"Artists will say, 'God, watercolor is so difficult.' I’m like, 'Really? I didn’t know that. Now that I know, it’s going to be difficult.' (laughs) But, it was my love, my first love, and I went home with the paint I danced with."
Swit has also been an artist from an early age and is a strong advocate for animals and animal rights. Along with Ultimate Symbol, she is proud to announce SwitHeart: The Watercolor Artistry & Animal Activism of Loretta Swit by Mies Hora, available January 2017. This hardcover book includes 65 full-color paintings and drawings, as well as anecdotes about each. Proceeds from the book will be donated to Swit’s relentless and tireless campaign to end animal suffering and cruelty.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Loretta, your art is amazing!
Loretta Swit: Oh, wow. Thank you! I’m grateful.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interiews Magazine): Has this been an interest your entire life?
Loretta Swit: Yes. On both interests, both passions. I’ve spent my lifetime in pursuit of the arts and caring for the animals. So, this book is a wonderful marriage for me. It’s like coming full circle, combining the loves of my life in one felled swoop. Being able to use that to help my animals is really a wonderful experience for me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why did you choose watercolor?
Loretta Swit: It chose me. I didn’t know any better. People laugh at me when I say that, but the truth of the matter is that we only know what we know. I picked up watercolor when I started to paint, as opposed to acrylic or oils or whatever, and that’s what I did. Artists will say, “God, watercolor is so difficult.” I’m like, “Really? I didn’t know that. Now that I know, it’s going to be difficult.” (laughs) But, it was my love, my first love, and I went home with the paint I danced with.
Now, I know my technique with the watercolors. It’s not difficult for me. I know my way around how to create a look, so I don’t think of it as difficult any more. It’s very challenging, but that’s part of the passion. That’s part of the fun. You wouldn’t be wanting to do the same role forever. You’d want to be challenged and take a vacation or do another role. That’s what we did on M*A*S*H. Everybody always did different things during the hiatuses. It keeps you sharp, skilled and honed and makes you better.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Where did that powerful love and respect for animals come from?
Loretta Swit: I really think it’s in all of us. It’s just what you do with it that counts. I think we’re all animals. This is who we are. We’re two-legged animals. We all have an instinct, a network and a language. I talk to my dog. She talks to me. I think we’re all able to connect and be in tune with animal life, possibly even plant life.
All I know is I never thought of it as being special or unique until adulthood. My attitude was, “Doesn’t everybody?” Well, no, they don’t. So, part of my mission is to educate. Education is a big deal when you work in the humane environment. You teach people things that they don’t know and it’s not their fault. You only know what you know. So, for us, education is a big, big part of the process. Teach kids about spaying and neutering. We don’t want to make more animals because we are killing millions of animals every day because there’s no room for them, no hones for them. Once you learn that, it will affect your behavior.
I believe in the goodness of human behavior. I was exposed to it during 9/11. I watched how the best of us comes out in a crisis, and my animals are in crisis. This is a crisis. It’s a battle for me, a battleground. What this book is going to be is ammunition. This is my ammunition to fight that battle.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Carrie Fisher’s French Bulldog was a therapy pet. She struggled with mental illness, and Carrie said that Gary calmed her down. It’s just fascinating how many ways animals can help people.
Loretta Swit: Absolutely. I’ve been on airplanes where a tiny dog is sitting on somebody’s lap, and it’s a working animal. That dog is helping a person. Even with all my networking and knowledge, I asked, “How does that little baby help you?” She said, “He tells me when it’s time to take my medicine.” Her dog senses when her blood pressure gets too high. She’s alone, and that’s why he is her therapy dog. That dog continues to save her life, to save her health.
Search and rescue dogs are amazing creatures, and what I love about that whole program is that we actually rescue the little lab and lab mix puppies and train them to rescue us. It’s a win-win situation. You come full circle. This little lab puppy in the book named Rookie is waiting to be evaluated. When he’s about three years old, he will be out there in crisis areas deployed all over the world. He’ll be digging people out of rubble and saving lives. It just gives me such hope for the human race. It fills me with hope.
I really feel that the rescues know what has been done for them. I find animals so sensitive and so sensitized to what’s going on. I have to believe that they know. The AMA will be the first to tell you that the best medicine is to have those working animals go to hospitals and to homes for the elderly. We had three working animals over at the Motion Picture Home where my mom stayed for the last three years of her life. Those people’s faces just lit up with the dogs on their laps.
By sheer life, very often the children are working or they can’t come and visit their moms and dads, so animals give them the big drop of love they need to keep getting. It simply works. It’s also proven, I understand, that people who have animal companions live longer. I’ve had as many as six dogs, and when we lose one, I can feel the difference in the atmosphere. They all are so different with different personalities, different squeaks and different growls.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I want to talk about your acting career. Early on, were you committed to being an actor as well as an artist?
Loretta Swit: Yes. I always wanted to be an actor. What’s funny is when I was a kid, I wouldn’t say that I was going to try to be a such and such. I always said that I was going to do something. It was instinctive, and it wasn’t until later in life that I said to James Gardner, “I’m thinking of taking up golf.” (laughs) He was a golfer and a frustrated one. When you really play it well, it’s a game of sheer frustration. But, James said, “No, dear Loretta. You’re going to try to learn how to take up golf. This is a process.” It made me laugh, and I remembered that I never said that I was going to try and become an actor.
I always said, “I’m going to become an actor.” (laughs) That was it. I was going to become an actor. I had made my choice as to what I was going to do. I never had the kind of childlike daydreams that one has. I grew up surrounded by motion pictures. My mom was a real movie buff, and so we went to the movies a lot. I didn’t want to be Scarlett O’Hara. I wanted to be Vivian Leigh playing Scarlett O’Hara. That’s very non-childlike. A child is taken with the beautiful wardrobe and the pretty face, and they want to be Scarlett. But, I wanted to do the hard work that Vivian Leigh was doing. I wanted to do that with all the characters. I wanted to do what they were doing to produce the effect they had on an audience. That’s what I loved.
I’ve always considered what we do a noble profession. Marlon Brandon used to break my heart when he sort of put down what we did and said, “It’s like play acting.” I’ve always thought it was a very valuable thing that we gave to the community, the state and globally. What we do on stage, for example, is allow people to feel, and I think that’s a desperately important thing for us as human beings because so often the world and its machinations has us depressed and numbed.
During 9/11, we were dark for two days. The theaters were dark. I was here in New York doing a play. We came back slowly. The houses were very small. I remember we had something like 60 people in the audience. The producer asked me to say a few words to the audience. I said, “We’re so glad that you’re here tonight with us to share what we’re all going through right now.” Basically, they were alleviating themselves of their feelings even if they were crying when they were supposed to be laughing at the play.
The reality is that those explosion of emotions should be out there. That’s what therapy is all about, and I think that’s what acting does. If we as actors can help you feel the deepest feelings in your heart and soul, that’s wonderful, and we have also helped ourselves. The performers and the audience have a big love affair.
The history of applause comes from hitting somebody on the back to say “good job.” It started when people couldn’t get close enough to pay that person on the back. They threw up their hand and made a tapping motion, and then joined the other hand with it. That’s the history of applause.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Very interesting.
Loretta Swit: Yes, so I love what we do. I love my profession and colleagues. I had some fan mail from an ICU nurse. They have an actual burnout time because you can’t do that forever. On her off-time, she worked with at-risk children, so she was constantly giving. She came to see a matinee performance of Shirley Valentine, a play I did. She said, “It’s billed as a comedy. I thought I needed to laugh. I went to laugh because I needed some release. Instead, I was touched by Shirley’s predicament and her passion for life. I was crying. I was laughing, too, at the funny parts. But, I didn’t realize I had gone to the play not just to laugh, but to feel and to cry.” That, to me, exactly says what I’ve always felt about what we do.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It was the 1970s, and you were the only female in a regular role on a very successful show. Did you experience any sexism during those early years in television or the 11 years on M*A*S*H?
Loretta Swit: I was, to a degree, privileged. I worked on shows that were notoriously humane (laughs). Gunsmoke was my first show, and you couldn’t work with a better, more wonderful group of people. I was blessed with this extraordinary British director who was just a saint. Bill Watson was playing my husband in an episode. The director took us to lunch before we started shooting the next day or so. He said, “I think it’s brutal to have you meet on the set, go into a scene together and be husband and wife. I’m not saying you can’t cut it, but isn’t this much nicer?” That was so thoughtful and sensitive, and it was a man feeling those things. We had a wonderful lunch and got to know each other a little bit.
Mike Connors is still one of my dearest friends. Mannix was maybe my second job. Jack Lord on Hawaii Five-O was so lovely to me. We had the same working technique. We admired each other and worked well together. He would always invite me into his dressing room trailer, and we’d have lunch together and talk about the next scenes because we so enjoyed acting. So, I was blessed those first few times. I was working with the crème de la crème.
On M*A*S*H, I had gentlemen who were raging feminists (laughs). They were wonderful. I didn’t have to worry about how I was going to be treated there. In fact, we were at some affair where we were all getting up to talk at the microphone, saying that we loved each other and that it was a family group. I said that it was so wonderful to be treated fairly like an equal. That question was always asked to me.
Harry Morgan was really half imp and half devil. He just always had that little edge of mischief and fun in his talks and was a very bright man. He got up and said, “Well, I for one have never treated you as an equal, Loretta, because I have always felt that you’re superior.” It got a big laugh, and to a degree, I think that Harry was kidding on the level. We were extra close. He, his wife and I would meet on weekends, have lunch together and just spend time together when we weren’t working. So, it was more than equality. It was a tremendous love. He represented so many things in my life. Harry was a father figure, a confessor and a good friend and colleague. He wore so many hats and he wore them so well. We just all loved him dearly and I felt very special in his life.
One day, my costumer on M*A*S*H went on a kind of strike because she asked for a raise. I asked her if the raise was outrageous. She said, “Here’s what I asked for, Lettie. I asked to be paid as much money as the men costumers on the lot.” I asked, “You mean you’re not?” She said, “Oh, no.” I said, “What did they say?” She told me that they said it wasn’t their policy to pay a woman as much as a man. That was a quote from them. I asked her if she had witnesses or if anyone heard him say that to her because it’s against the law!
I brought the boys together, and I told them what had happened, and we called in some guy from labor relations. Bless her heart, the costumer stuck to her guns and went out on a one-woman strike. They changed their policy. So, they started paying the women costumers as much as the men costumers, and it’s all thanks to this sweet lady who had the courage to say, “This isn’t fair.” But, my M*A*S*H guys stood up for her and we got it fixed. I’m sure we all went on a couple of black lists (laughs). But, you run that risk. To answer your question, I know for a fact that sexism did exist and it does exist still.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You were in one of the first, true, female buddy TV movie, Cagney & Lacey in 1981. But, you couldn’t accept the part of Christine Cagney in the series because of contractual obligations?
Loretta Swit: Right. I had to stay with M*A*S*H. I would’ve been happy to do it. I loved creating that role. I felt Cagney was very much like Margaret (Houlihan), spunky, ambitious and tough, yet I could see she was tender and caring for victims. For that role, I studied. I took classes. I worked with a pro and a rookie. I learned everything about firearms. I did the whole thing. I wore a vest, and I have to tell you, that does nothing for your wonder bra (laughs). But, I loved the idea of doing that.
I remember it was the number one movie of that week and number three on the total scheme of things. So, Harry (Morgan) came to me and said, “That’s your next job, kiddo. That’s your next series. Go for it!” But, CBS said, “No. We’re not going to let you leave us.” And, it was the same network. Anyway, it’s not my style to fight or walk out. That’s just not the way I do things. So, I said, “Okay. Fine.”
I think sometimes a lot of it is preordained by a higher power. I think sometimes you need to sit back and let go and let God. You’ve got to go with the flow, so to speak. When M*A*S*H ended with that 2 ½ hour special and garnered the greatest volume of people watching television ever, I would so have regretted not being a part of that, and it would’ve been tough to leave my M*A*S*H family. It was bittersweet. I was torn, no question. I think a part of me allowed the fates, if you will, to determine what road to take, so I didn’t fight it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you doing any acting these days?
Loretta Swit: Oh, Lord, yes, unless you want to support me (laughs). I’ve never left theater. I just closed in Eleanor Roosevelt: Her Secret Journey. I did four evenings of Eleanor Roosevelt in Laguna Beach, and I was thrilled with the response because a lot of those people are young, and they want to know about her. She is an icon for me. Eleanor is a great example of how far you can push that enveloped. She was amazing. The more I studied her, the more in awe I was of her feats and accomplishments. Truman worshipped her. She was a woman, and he invited her into the UN to be a part of the delegation there. She was the first First Lady who made something out of the job.
I’m going to be working at the Palm Springs Annenberg Theater. I’m doing a charming, wonderful and very thoughtful piece called Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, and I’d like to do a tour in the Fall on it. In the summer, I’ll be in Europe doing The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You and other celebrities made a video to urge the Electoral College to not vote for Donald Trump. As we all know, that tactic did not work, so was it worth the effort?
Loretta Swit: It didn’t accomplish our goal, but as far as I’m concerned, it worked. We made our statements and it got out there. A lot of people listened and a lot of people applauded the fact that we did that. It gave people more courage perhaps. I read something the other day, and it has been my mantra, “Your day will end the minute you are silent about something that matters.”
The video was hastily put together. We could’ve gotten thousands of people. But, this group put their voices and faces out there and said, “Please vote from your conscience. This is what we stand for, and we’re begging you to look at the record and see the incompetence. You’re putting the American people in a terrible position.” Basically, that’s what we were saying.
We all felt that very deeply, and I know there are people out there who would’ve loved to have had the chance to be a part of that. So, in a sense, I thought it was wonderful that we did it and that it got out there. We all knew it was a longshot. But, we got it on the record that there were a lot of us who were begging the Electoral College to not give their vote to Trump. If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.
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