Loretta Swit said her role on M*A*S*H was one of the hardest to play

"She's human and humane, and I try to justify her outrageous behavior by being the best nurse in Korea," Loretta Swit said about her M*A*S*H character.

Image credit: The Everett Collection

Loretta Swit's dating history in M*A*S*H sounds more like a soap opera than it does a classic military sitcom. Swit played the iconic role of Maj. Margaret Houlihan for 11 seasons.

M*A*S*H was frozen in time in the Korean War, and Margaret Houlihan was one of the by-the-book nurses to put in long hours at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. 

Many fans enjoyed watching Swit's character because she brought a nice balance to the series. She was a great nurse, could play a mean prank on Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda), or spend her time picking on Radar (Gary Burghoff). 

In a 1978 interview with The Wichita Eagle, Swit said her character had a lot of conflicting emotions and inner tension.

"She's the most difficult character I've ever taken on," Swit said. "The most difficult part of her is that she's humorless, although the viewers find her funny. She's [heavy], but with redeeming qualities. She's human and humane, and I try to justify her outrageous behavior by being the best nurse in Korea."

Swit said she didn't like to call her character 'Hot Lips' because she felt it was too derogatory of a term to describe Maj. Houlihan. Her character was more than just sex appeal, Maj. Houlihan added a lot of heart, a little tension and a new storyline to M*A*S*H.

"I'm not like Margaret," she said. "The only familiarity I have is that I've played her for so long. I'm an actress, so I found things about the character. I can't say I draw from experience. There are certain traits in Margaret I've taken from people I know."

Swit wanted to be an actress since childhood. She moved to Hollywood in 1969, where she quickly started getting guest roles on TV. For Swit, being in the acting business was a dream, even if it meant being a nurse in Korea for 11 seasons.

"I'm somewhere between age 30 and death," she said. "I'm in the business of illusion. When I started M*A*S*H, I was really too young for the role. I don't want my age known because it could hurt. I think most actors keep themselves fit and well, and should be cast that way."

Swit and Houlihan may not be alike, but we are thankful Swit played the role and portrayed Houlihan in the way she did.

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28 Comments

forthekids 13 months ago
Ms.Swit had performed on two tv series that can be seen on ME TV:"Gunsmoke" and "Mannix".
JHP 13 months ago
Sorry - Larry Linville had light years difficult for the role - gees case closed

Hot lips played two ways - she reveled in Frank but - wait for it wait for it...

That character was 2 faced - at least Frank wasn't - he was true to his beliefs
Zip JHP 13 months ago
The way Frank was written, he was a one-note caricature. I think even Larry has mentioned something like that. Margaret was more complex, especially as she grew.
You're right about Frank, though. He was honest at least. And hilarious.
JHP Zip 13 months ago
do you play darts?

BULLS:) 50 pointer for you
SkippyDevereaux 13 months ago
I never understood how the show is supposedly in the 1950's, yet her hair is 1980's?? The same thing happened to "Happy Days", guys with 1980's hairstyles in a show set in the 1950/60's.
sagafrat69 13 months ago
Loretta Swit looked so bored playing Margaret in those last few seasons of MASH. Probably had something to do with the horrific comedy writers they had in those last years. Should've sent Hot Lips to the 8063rd and had her back for finale. Swit not allowed to do Cagney when her character's storylines dried up after Linville left us one of the great t.v. injustices. She was also in an episode of the classic show Mission Impossible.
Adamtwelvia sagafrat69 5 months ago
1 main comedy writer- Alan Alda.
House7613 14 months ago
Please get some more seasons, the one you have is growing whiskers
harlow1313 14 months ago
Well, the character changes so much over the course of the series, it might as well be two different characters played by one actress.
forthekids harlow1313 13 months ago
I liked Ms.Swit character of"Maj.Hoolihan"..better..after she dropped "Maj.Burns"and she became a nicer person to "Hawkeye","B.J.","Klinger","Charles","Father Mulcahy",and "Col.Potter".
CoreyC 14 months ago
Poor Loretta got screwed by the producers for not letting her out to be on Cagney & Lacey.
Pacificsun CoreyC 14 months ago
May_be. But which Series made her a television legend.
CoreyC Pacificsun 13 months ago
I agree but Loretta would have gotten top billing.
JHP CoreyC 13 months ago
ahhh - are you a weatherperson?
LoveMETV22 14 months ago

JHP LoveMETV22 13 months ago
hate to pick - but those glasses aren't beer glasses:)
LoveMETV22 JHP 13 months ago
" hate to pick - but those glasses aren't beer glasses:)."
-----------------------------------------------------
LOL. Just for you JHP
JHP LoveMETV22 13 months ago
oooh you almost got me:) - I had to channel my inner Columbo - you cut and pasted a mixer type glass there,,or well:) and her fingers aren't around the mug (or whatever)

in the words of Frank Burns "SNOT SNOT SNOT!"

by the way - are you using Photoshop? If you don't want to tell me - its ok
LoveMETV22 JHP 13 months ago
I have Photoshop, but a number of other image software programs. I do use Photoshop, but didn't on this one.
JHP LoveMETV22 13 months ago
o-tay:)

used to use a very old version when Adobe was all the rage
Adanor 14 months ago
Like many actresses, she "aged into" her part. When she first got the part, she actually was younger than the stated age of Hot Lips. Then the years rolled by and she was able to actually be the age of Hot Lips. But then, she felt that she had to hide her real age because, of course, actresses always need to be young and will do all sorts of things to "be young."
JHP Adanor 13 months ago
she was still great as the character - hands down! Gees they all aged as the show went on,,Krist

I see the character as aged - yes - but - she did it really well
Sway 14 months ago
Loretta Swit did a great job of playing the multi-dimensional character of Major Margaret Houlihan.
Pacificsun 14 months ago
IMO the only way to really get a feel for Loretta Swit is through Mannix (1970) and probably Gunsmoke and Bonanza. Then came MASH. Where her character (role) was so specialized that it consumed Swit herself. (as a personality). Keeping in mind, the interview quoted is from 1978. You would need to be grateful for those 11 Seasons, having surrendered so many other opportunities and never successfully clarifying your own personality (meaning free of analysis). My guess is, like Frances Bavier, the public can't distinguish you after awhile. Which creates it's own reaction.

It's been interesting reading the stories (here) about that circumstance affecting different actors. How they rebelled or put it to useful purpose. I'm happy for the ones who ended up better off. Thanks MeTV for an inside story!
Andybandit 14 months ago
Loretta played Margret real well. I just didn't like her with Frank.
JHP Andybandit 13 months ago
hate to say it - that was a really great side view of the show - split them apart and then the show would be ahhhhhhhhh nothing. Maybe Hot Lips would a been better with Klinger? Igor?
LoveMETV22 14 months ago
Great story. Thanks MeTV. Loretta Swit did bring a good balance to the series in her role as
Margaret Houlihan, not only with Hawkeye and Radar, but she kept Frank Burns and a few other characters in check.
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