Loretta Swit,actress, is a familiar face for fans of classic television – especially classic television from the 1970s. Especially for her role as Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan throughout the 11-year run of the much revered CBS series “M*A*S*H” (in fact, she and Alan Alda were the only members of the “M*A*S*H” cast to have that distinction).
However, there is so much more to Loretta Swit than the role of the shrill, by-the-book martinet head nurse of the 4077th that she is chiefly known for. Since the age of six, she has been an accomplished artist. And for as long as she can remember, Ms. Swit has been a passionate animal activist, and champions many causes that advocates for the rights of animals and to prevent widespread cruelty to animals. For her efforts as an animal activist, Ms. Swit has been recognized with many honours and awards, the most recent was the Betty White Award, which she received last December from the organization Actors & Others for Animals.
“Being an animal activist is not something you take up in a hurry. The need is there, so you just do it,” said Ms. Swit during a recent phone interview from California. “I wanted to fight for animal rights all my life, because cruelty towards animals takes on many different forms, and I am against all of them.”
Combining two her life’s passions – art and animal activism – resulted in the creation of Switheart, an attractive coffee table book that features 65 watercolour paintings – which are reproduced in full colour — that Ms. Swit has done over a 30-year period, which are mainly of different animals that she has owned, known or rescued (along with a few floral still lifes). Each of the paintings that are featured in the book are accompanied with a brief backgrounder by Ms. Swit that tells the story behind the creation of the painting in question, as well as its respective subject matter.
Ms. Swit admits it wasn’t an easy process to select the 65 paintings that made the cut for the book, out of the countless animal portraits and floral still lifes she painted for so many years. “There was no way to calculate the exact amount of paintings I did. I was very harsh and demanding on myself when I did them, and I trashed a lot of paintings that didn’t meet up to my standards,” she said. “And I haven’t kept many of them because they were done as a way to raise funds to help the many animal activist causes that I support.”
However, she also admits that her favorite painting that is showcased in the book is not of a dog or a cat … but of a rooster. “My number 1 choice is my painting of Chutzpah the rooster, because it was the first animal painting that I added a colorfully vibrant background to it. It opened up to me a whole new way of working as a painter,” she said. “When you paint a portrait of an animal, it’s a way of establishing a close relationship between you and the subject, as if it is an actual live pet.”
Proceeds from the book will benefit the Switheart Animal Alliance Foundation, and the many organizations, charities and programs under the foundation’s umbrella that are dedicated to ending animal cruelty and suffering.
Another topic that Ms. Swit is just as passionate to talk about is her 11 years as part of the cast of “M*A*S*H”, and is happy to note that since it officially ended its run in 1983 with its historic 2 ½-hour finale, reruns of the series have been continually airing on syndication around the world (including History Television in Canada, which airs two episodes every weekday afternoon).
“All of the cast members of ‘M*A*S*H’ were very close like it was a family in its own right. And to viewers, we were like everybody’s family, and they trusted us because we gave them a familial feeling with every episode,” she said.
She also noted how the writers included personal characteristics to each character (Margaret was even given a sense of compassion towards animals, which was exemplified in one episode midway through the show’s run when she secretly took care of a dog that strayed onto the grounds of the 4077th). As well, she remembers the moment during a summer hiatus from the series in 1976, when it was decided to take the development of Margaret Houlihan’s character to the next level, especially when it came to her illicit relationship with Major Frank Burns (played by the late Larry Linville).
“The evolution of Major Margaret Houlihan was an eventual, necessary process, and not accidental,” she said. “The producers and the writers realized that her relationship with Frank Burns was a funny joke that can only be done so many times; and the more intelligent Margaret became, the more sillier Frank became.”
“So while I was on hiatus in New York during the summer of 1976, I participated in a conference call in which we discussed Margaret’s future. So they asked me what would happen if Margaret came back from R&R in Tokyo and told Frank that she got engaged to a single guy who outranked him. I told them that Frank would not be a happy camper, and would probably rip the doors off the mess tent when she told him about it. And that’s the scenario they used, which provoked quite a lot of funny episodes afterwards,” added Ms. Swit.
Ms. Swit has a special place in her heart for all of her fellow “M*A*S*H” cast members, including the late William Christopher – aka the 4077th’s resident chaplain Father Mulcahy – who passed away from cancer last December 31 at the age of 84.
“Bill was born to play the part of Father Mulcahy,” she said. “He was the perfect prototype of what a military chaplain should be like; in fact, there were many viewers who said that Father Mulcahy brought people back to the church. He was such a beloved and adored person who approached his role with a great deal of humanity, humor, brilliance and strength. I haven’t fully recovered from the loss felt by his passing.”
Currently, Ms. Swit is in rehearsal for leading roles in two upcoming stage productions: “Eleanor Roosevelt: Her Secret Journey” and “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks” (which she hopes to tour with across Canada in the near future). And she also hinted at putting together a sequel to Switheart.
“I plan to put together a second volume, which will have all the paintings that were rejected for this book, including an abundant choice of rooster paintings,” she jokingly added.
By: Stuart Nulman – mtltimes.ca