Loretta Swit played ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan in hit US series M*A*S*H but tells ME & MY MONEY how she almost left

Screen legend: Loretta in the TV series about US military doctors

Screen legend: Loretta in the TV series about US military doctors

Double Emmy Award-winning actress Loretta Swit was already an established theatre and TV star when in 1972 she landed the role of Major Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan in the hit show M*A*S*H. 

Unlike several co-stars she stayed the course, finally hanging up her dog tags when the show about American military doctors serving abroad ended in 1983. 

Swit has also starred in stage and screen comedies and dramas, from Mission: Impossible to The Muppet Show.

Now an author and entrepreneur with her own line of jewellery and perfume, Swit, 86, tells Dan Moore she is an animal rights campaigner. 

Since her divorce from actor Dennis Holahan in 1995, she has shared her New York home with two rescue dogs, Yorkshire terriers.

Where did you get the acting bug?

My family did not understand me at all. They were mystified by my passion for acting. We laughed about it later because they put up such resistance to me going into it, and then they were so proud when I turned it around. It wasn’t that they didn’t love me or want me to be happy, they just knew the chances of making a living out of acting weren’t good.

Did you struggle to make a living when you started out?

Nothing terrific comes easy. I trained and then worked as an executive secretary. I joined the Kelly Girls, an employment service that placed secretaries in jobs where they could create their own schedule. This was imperative for me because I’d need to go looking for acting work and take long lunches to audition.

I had some extraordinary jobs. I worked at the UN, and at the embassy of Ghana as secretary to the ambassador. Secretarial work was a varied, colourful job, but I wasn’t paid much, just enough to cover groceries and the $75 a month in rent. Now you wouldn’t get a closet in New York for that amount. I was also earning about $15 a week in an off-Broadway show. That helped.

When did you feel that you had made it as an actor?

If acting was your main job, rather than a side hustle, when you were out of work you could collect benefit. This effectively meant you’ve made it as an actor when you were queuing up for your unemployment cheque!

How did M*A*S*H change your career?

From the get-go I thought we had something very special. I thought the formula was unbeatable. The stories, the dramas, really hit home. You had people doing noble work in a place they didn’t want to be. It’s dangerous, terrible – stitching bodies together of boys who weren’t old enough to shave – and restrictive, especially for those who had families back home.

As for me, it wasn’t about the money, which was OK, it was the consistency, and to work all the time at something that you enjoy with people you love. It was like dying and going to actor heaven.

What was your best year, financially?

That would be during the mid-1970s. I had to fight hard with the writers to convince them that my character, Margaret, could be funny and still have integrity. I won the right to change her name from ‘Hot Lips’ to Margaret, in honour of every servicewoman who went to Korea, who weren’t there for decoration, but to do a job. When it came to pay, I’m not sure it increased in line with the growth of the character, but it was fine.

For a nanosecond I considered leaving M*A*S*H to do Cagney & Lacey, about two New York police detectives. I’d done the pilot film and was torn. In the end, I didn’t leave. In any case, Fox and CBS, who owned both shows, said they wouldn’t let me out of my contract.

This would have been the perfect opportunity for my agent to go in and say: ‘You’re going to have to pay her double what she’s getting.’ But they didn’t and I just carried on. I found the work rewarding, it was a secure job by that stage and I was making enough money to feel satisfied. Not hundreds of thousands, but enough to feel wanted and be financially secure.

Are you a spender or a saver?

I’m a saver. I’m not frivolous – although all the trips to the restaurant Giorgio’s in New York don’t support this theory.

What is your top treat?

Helping hand: Loretta's charity helps pets

Helping hand: Loretta’s charity helps pets

I love my home, my animals, and I have a great fireplace. I have some good, close friends and we meet for a yack and a laugh.

Do you have a pension?

We all did, automatically, if you were in the union. So, there was a little taken from every pay cheque, and the residual built up over time. It’s come in handy.

What has been your best money decision?

Buying my first home, a three-storey house on the border of Hollywood and Beverly Hills, just before M*A*S*H. This was off the back of some leading roles on shows that paid well, such as Hawaii 5-0, Gunsmoke and Bonanza, and I paid something like $545,000. I put a downpayment of $12,000, which was all I had. I read recently it had sold for $5 million (£4 million). Now I live in a lovely old high-ceilinged flat, with its beautiful fireplace in a glorious area of New York, but it’s not in that league, financially.

What is your financial priority?

My charity, the SwitHeart Animal Alliance. It’s a global venture that helps animals get the treatment they need if they’ve been abandoned, abused or because their owners can’t afford the care.

I work with some vets who lower their prices so we can cover the rest to get essential surgery done that a family who loves their dog or cat couldn’t afford.

How do you fund your SwitHeart animal charity?

We can cover surgeries through our alliances with other like-minded organisations, donations and other support.

I put all the proceeds of my book of animal paintings – SwitHeart: The Watercolour Artistry & Animal Activism of Loretta Swit – to the cause. It’s the same with my line of jewellery and perfume.

Just recently we had a little cat that needed an amputation, which is really pricy, and we could pay for that operation. It’s a wonderful thing. Everyone wins.

We’ve not raised excessive sums – we don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to hand. Every time we have money, we dole it out for primary care.

  • To find out more about Loretta Swit’s animal alliance charity visit

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