Though she was personally unable to sit through the 1970 feature version of "M*A*S*H" due to an aversion to blood, Emmy-winning actress Loretta Swit campaigned hard to land the role of Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan on the television version (CBS, 1972-1983). The role of the brittle, unwaveringly loyal and patriotic, but secretly passionate Houlihan became the most enduring role in her long career, which featured numerous guest appearances in TV movies and on game shows. After her 11 years on "M*A*S*H," Swit struggled to distance herself from the role in made for television movies like "Games Mother Never Taught You" (CBS, 1982) and "The Execution" (NBC, 1985), while landing the role of Chris Cagney on the pilot episode of "Cagney & Lacy" (CBS, 1981-88), only to be unable to play the part when "M*A*S*H" producers refused to let her out of her contract. Meanwhile, she appeared on a number of game shows like "Win, Lose or Draw" (NBC, 1987-1990), "Pyramid" (1973-2004) and "Hollywood Squares" (1966-2004), and later served as the host of "Those Incredible Animals" (Discovery Channel, 1992). While she remained largely out of view in the new millennium, Swit lived on forever in reruns of "M*A*S*H," which continually introduced her to new generations of fans.
Born Nov. 4, 1937 in Passaic, NJ, Swit had ambitions to becoming an actress at an early age, but ran into resistance from parents, both Polish immigrants, who were against the idea. She eventually won out and made her debut as the Snow Queen in a dance recital at the age of seven. Swit later set out to learn her craft at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, which preceded her studies with acclaimed teacher and director Gene Frankel as part of his repertory company. In the earliest days of her career, Swit faced opposition from casting directors over her last name and her somewhat non-ingénue features, which forced her to shift focus to the theater. Thanks to her knack for comedy, drama and singing, Swit found regular work in both plays and musicals, including a 1967 stint in the national touring company of "Any Wednesday" and a Las Vegas production of "Mame" as the mousy Agnes Gooch. She also appeared opposite Ernest Borgnine and Don Rickles in a Los Angeles production of "The Odd Couple."
Swit eventually touched down in Hollywood and made a name for herself with her often eclectic performances, which earned her repeat appearances on shows like "Gunsmoke (CBS, 1955-1975) and "Hawaii 5-0" (CBS, 1968-1980). She also made her feature film debut with a small role as a woman with a glass eye in the cult comedy-drama "Deadhead Miles" (1972) starring Alan Arkin, with whom she would reunite for Richard Rush's cop comedy "Freebie and the Bean" (1975) In 1972, Swit marked her debut as Hot Lips in "M*A*S*H," Larry Gelbart's TV adaptation of Robert Altman's black comedy about U.S. Army surgeons during the Korean War. As played by Sally Kellerman in the feature, Houlihan was a taciturn Army brat who ruled her fellow nurses with an iron fist. Among her most verboten commands was to forbid their fraternization with male officers, though she herself carried on a torrid affair with the equally unpleasant Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall). Their absurdly overripe relationship resulted in her nickname, which was blurted out in a moment of passion that was broadcast to the entire camp.
When Swit assumed the role in 1972, Houlihan's hard edges had been tempered somewhat to play up the comic angle. But as the series progressed over its decade-long network run, Houlihan eventually displayed softer and more human aspects to her personality. She struggled with alcoholism in several episodes, and suffered from loneliness after she split with Burns (Larry Linville) and married Lt. Col. Donald Penobscot (Beeson Carroll), who was unfaithful to her. Eventually, Houlihan made peace with the irreverent personalities in the 4077th, and maintained a balance between tough officer and likable friend. Hot Lips even had a brief romance with Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda), a former thorn in her side, though the affair was brought on by the possibility both might be killed during a bombing raid. While many of the nuances of Houlihan's character were credited to the arrival of Linda Bloodworth-Thomas to the show's writing staff, Swit received numerous television award nominations, and took home two Emmy Awards (in 1980 and 1982) and a People's Choice Award for Favorite Female Star in 1983.
While serving her time on "M*A*S*H," Swit remained exceptionally active in other projects, including numerous television movies and a handful of features, including the high-intensity action-thriller "Race with the Devil" (1975) with Peter Fonda and Warren Oates, and Blake Edwards' "S.O.B." (1981), in which she played a venal gossip columnist. She was also a frequent and much-liked contestant on numerous game shows and celebrity contests, like "Battle of the Network Stars" (ABC, 1976) and "Circus of the Stars" (CBS, 1979). Swit then starred in the TV movie "Cagney and Lacey" (CBS, 1981), playing New York police detective Christine Cagney. When the film drew outstanding ratings, the network commissioned a limited-run television series, but Swit was prevented from taking the role due to her contractual obligations to "M*A*S*H." The role eventually went to actress Sharon Gless.
After "M*A*S*H" ended its run with an historic and record-setting finale in 1982, Swit found regular work in television and the occasional feature. There were several fine dramatic turns in TV movies like "The Execution" (1985), with Swit as one of five concentration camp survivors who track down their former Nazi tormentor, and "Dreams of Gold: The Mel Fisher Story" (1986), about the real-life treasure hunter. But few seemed capable of exploiting Swit's comic skills to the fullest, though occasional attempts like the features "Beer" (1985) and "Whoops Apocalypse" (1986), which cast her as the first woman president, proved fruitful. She soon found more rewarding work with her initial love of theater, appearing in several notable productions, including "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" on Broadway. In 1991, she won the Susan Siddons Award for her performance in a Chicago production of "Shirley Valentine." Swit's distinctive voice was frequently featured in television documentaries and series, including "Korea: The Forgotten War" (1987) and the Discovery Channel program "Those Incredible Animals" (1992-97), as well as in animated series like "Cow and Chicken" (Cartoon Network, 1997-99).
While her onscreen appearances became fewer and farther between over the ensuing years - she was largely out of the public eye by the 21st century - Swit devoted considerable time to animal rights causes; she spoke out against the fur industry and animal cruelty videos, which earned her praise from the American Humane Society and other like-minded organizations. She also contributed to animal rights charities by sales of original jewelry and artwork through her official website. Swit was also a dedicated needlepoint fan and penned Needlepoint Scrapbook in 1986 about the subject. Continuing to perform on stage, Swit toured with "The Vagina Monologues" and played the titular character in a 2003 production of "Mame." Her career wound down in the new millennium, as she made few appearances outside of "M*A*S*H" reunion specials and serving as the referee on a new twist of an old favorite, "Battle of the Network Reality Stars" (Bravo, 2005). Following a five-year hiatus, Swit returned to the stage to star in the world premiere of Mark Miller's "Amorous Crossing" (2010) at the Alhambra Dinner Theatre in Florida.
Cast (Feature Film)
Had early TV exposure on episode of "Hawaii Five-O"
Made feature film debut, "Stand Up and Be Counted"
Made TV-movie debut in "Shirts/Skins" (ABC)
Created the role of Chris Cagney in the CBS TV-movie "Cagney and Lacey"
Co-starred in the feature "S.O.B."
Made West End debut in "The Vagina Monologues"