The TV show M*A*S*H was huge in its day. Believe it or not, it still holds the record for the most-watched show finale ever. But even those who watched that last episode and held it in their hearts forever might not know what was really going on behind the scenes — especially when it came to lead actress Loretta Swit. She’s revealed some fascinating and eye-opening tidbits about what working on M*A*S*H was really like.
Loretta Swit played Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan — and more on that nickname later — in no less than 239 episodes of M*A*S*H. She began the series as a firm authority figure, but as the show went on, she changed and became a more well-rounded character with storylines of her own. And she was also very popular with audiences.
Swit won multiple awards for her portrayal of Margaret Houlihan and established herself as one of the biggest TV stars of her era. She got herself not one but two Primetime Emmys out of ten nominations in all, plus a People’s Choice Award and a Silver Satellite Award, among others. And she even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
A magical thing
But perhaps even more importantly, Swit loved the set of M*A*S*H, she loved her fellow cast members, and she loved the fans. In 2023 she did an interview with the website Digital Journal and happily remembered, “There are people that can quote every joke, episode, and every piece of dialogue, and they love that they know it so well, they say the lines with us, so it’s really a bonding of an extraordinary nature. I feel like we have all been a part of a magical thing.”
But while the show was still going on, Swit wasn’t so sure if she actually had a future with it. Leaving altogether was very much on the cards for her, but eventually she opted to stick around — and she was very glad she did, because she met her husband on the show! She explained everything in a little-known interview from 1988.
Swit told the newspaper The Post-Crescent that year, “There were times when I wanted to leave M*A*S*H and do other things. When I met Dennis I said to myself, ‘So that’s why I’m still here.’” And hardcore fans of the show will know which Dennis she means. In the season 11 episode “U.N., the Night and the Music,” Margaret falls in love with a character played by actor Dennis Holahan, and life soon imitated art.
A big crush
Swit told the newspaper, “Dennis played a Swedish army officer who came to visit the MASH unit. Margaret Houlihan immediately developed an enormous crush on him. Dennis’ character liked Margaret too, but he had been injured when his jeep went over a mine. He had nerve damage, he was impotent. Margaret didn’t care, she was in love. Suddenly I realized, so was I.”
The experience turned Swit’s whole life upside down. She mused, “For all her G.I. ways, Margaret Houlihan was always looking for a lasting relationship. She wanted to get married and have babies. But I wasn’t aware I was looking. Maybe that’s the best way to find someone special, when love is the last thing on your mind.”
Swit and Hohahan got married in a quiet ceremony in December 1983, during the Christmas period. A spokesperson for Swit revealed to the media that although only close friends and family were permitted at the actual ceremony, some of Swit’s M*A*S*H co-stars were invited to the evening reception. Harry Morgan, Mike Farrell, and Wayne Rogers were reportedly all there.
It was a wonderful story of finding love on a film set… but unfortunately, the relationship didn’t last, in the end. In 1989 they divorced, having been together for only six years. There were rumors at the time that the primary cause of the rift was simply that Swit was more successful in her career — and made more money — than her husband.
Swit never remarried after the divorce, and a revealing interview she did in 2016 offered some clues as to why. She told the Daily Express newspaper that year, “Margaret and I were as different as could be. Margaret wanted a home and family. I must admit, I never did. What I had in common was Margaret’s ambition, strength, and feminism.”
Swit went on, “I never saw marriage and family in my life. My first thought in life was wanting to be an actor. I was in ballet slippers and on pointe as soon as I could walk. I always wanted to be an actress, not a mother or housewife. I remember one boyfriend telling me, ‘I’m wasting my time here — I want to get married, and clearly you don’t.’ I don’t feel that I was equipped to do that.”
And yep, that applied to her short-lived marriage with Dennis Holahan as well. Swit revealed, “I’m not sure I even wanted to get married, even then.” Swit was writing a memoir, she told the newspaper, but she wasn’t sure her ex-husband was even going to feature in it. Asked what went wrong, she answered, “I know some wonderful married couples, but it takes two very special people to make that happen.”
Clearly things have changed a lot for Swit since the ’80s and the end of M*A*S*H. In her later years she became a dedicated animal rights activist and had a Discovery Channel show called Those Incredible Animals which ran for five years. She even started her own non-profit, the SwitHeart Animal Alliance. But she’s also happy to discuss M*A*S*H with the media whenever the time is right.
Swit gave an interview to Closer Weekly magazine in January 2022 and shared some fond memories from her time on M*A*S*H. She said, “Wayne [Rogers] and I would always say, “We got intimate quickly.” We shot a sort of summer show in the winter. At five in the morning, you’re up in the mountains in California, and it is very, very cold. And Wayne would be wearing one of those Hawaiian shirts the guys wore. He’d be turning blue. So we’d put a blanket around us and all huddle together on breaks.”
A lot of change
And when asked what she thought about the two Emmy Awards she got for playing Margaret, Swit said, “Awards are sensational. They’re wonderful, and you feel loved and validated. I’m not sure how much they change your life. I think M*A*S*H became a phenomenon, and that certainly affected tremendous change in all of our lives.”
It sounds like Swit had a wonderful time doing M*A*S*H — but she still had some quibbles about the writing and the treatment of her character while the show was going on. She spoke about them during a February 2023 interview with the website Yahoo, 40 years after the season finale aired and set its still-to-be-beaten record.
Swit spoke about one issue she always had with the finale: the fact Margaret chose to go back to the United States to work in a hospital, rather than heading for Belgium or Tokyo. She said, “I didn’t think that was correct for my Margaret. For me, she was off to the next war. Margaret is military, just like Potter. I think her next move was Vietnam. So I didn’t agree with that, but that’s what they wanted her to do.”
Swit also suspected the writers had an ulterior motive for making Margaret remain in the United States — they wanted to leave the door open for a spin-off. Swit said in the interview, “Maybe they had some visions of another show with her in a hospital in America. I don’t know, but I really felt that was not quite right for Margaret in my heart.”
End of the line
But, of course, a Margaret spin-off never happened in the end. There was a spin-off series, AfterMASH, but it never achieved the heights that the original show did. There was also the show Trapper John, M.D. which ran from 1979 to 1986, but that was supposed to be based on the original M*A*S*H movie rather than the TV show.
There was another thing Swit disliked about the writing, and that was her character’s nickname of “Hot Lips.” She found it sexist and demeaning. She told Yahoo, “[Margaret] was so much more than a piece of anatomy. I kept telling the writers, ‘She’s more than this.’” Eventually, the nickname did start to be phased out of the show.
Margaret and Frank
And Swit also objected to her character’s relationship with Frank Burns. She remembered to Yahoo, “I would tell the writers that we could not continue the relationship I had with Frank. 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 the other doctors had no respect for. It was difficult to keep justifying that relationship.”
Unlike what you might think, the M*A*S*H writers were actually pretty open to Swit’s suggestions for her character. Producer Burt Metcalfe told People magazine all the way back in 1979, “[A]s Loretta became more socially aware, she would suggest little changes in Houlihan’s dialogue and motivation that made the character more dedicated, deep and human.”
Loretta and Alan
Swit’s co-star Alan Alda was also very in favor of Margaret’s character getting progressively more feminist. Swit herself told People, “I think of Alan as a teacher. He is so involved in women’s lib and has helped me to have confidence in myself. He is a gentle, kind man and I owe a lot of my transformation into a liberated person to him.”
It goes without saying that Swit greatly enjoyed her time with Alda on set. Their characters ended up having a romance in the episode “Comrades in Arms,” and Swit has fond memories of that too. “Alan had written ‘Comrades in Arms’ for us several seasons before he actually did it, because the creators weren’t sure the audience would accept it,” she told Yahoo. “But it was a turning point, and it spoke to the totality of M*A*S*H — it contained everything: it contains tears and laughter and silliness and survival. That’s why people tuned in.”
But despite getting along so well with everyone on set and being in a position where people listened to her, Swit didn’t want to stay on M*A*S*H any longer than she had to. She told Yahoo, “You get to the point where you’re afraid to start repeating yourself. The writers didn’t want to run out of ideas, and we didn’t want to repeat jokes.”
Cagney and Lacey
And Swit was even keener to leave the show on a high note when she got what seemed like a better offer. In 1981 she played Christine Cagney in the Cagney and Lacey TV movie and could have reprised her role for a series. However, 20th Century Fox wouldn’t let her out of her M*A*S*H contract.
Swit said in the interview with Yahoo, “I was very tempted [to leave] after I did that movie. I loved that character, and I was tempted to be on my own show as opposed to being part of an incredible ensemble where the show was the star.” But now she has no regrets about the way things turned out. She told Yahoo, “Thinking back, I wasn’t up to making that decision, so I was happy that the studio and the network made it for me. That way, I could always blame them!”
But Swit remained on the show until its final moments, and even though she didn’t love all of the ending she loved the bonds she’d formed on-set. She told Yahoo, “The finale was really about tying everybody together and satisfying the audience who all have their favorite characters. Alan wrote me a note after the show ended about how wonderful it was to have that opportunity to fulfill Margaret’s character and see her grow meaningfully.”
And Swit also loved that she got to be a role model for women during a time when there weren’t nearly as many on TV. She proudly said in the Yahoo interview, “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.”