Loretta Swit on the 'M*A*S*H' series finale and why she never liked the nickname 'Hot Lips': 'She was so much more than a piece of anatomy'
The star of the beloved comedy celebrates 40 years of the show's record-setting series finale.
Over 100 million viewers agree: M*A*S*H's feature-length series finale is one of the greatest mic drops in television history. Premiering 40 years ago on Feb. 28, 1983, the two-and-a-half-hour sign-off "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen," brought the curtain down on the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital after 11 seasons and 256 episodes. And audiences turned out in droves to watch Hawkeye (Alan Alda), B.J. (Mike Farrell), Klinger (Jamie Farr), and Col. Potter (Harry Morgan) celebrate the end of the Korean War — to this day, the M*A*S*H finale remains the most-watched episode of any scripted series ever. And that record is never going to change: Just ask Loretta Swit, who played the 4077's head nurse, Margaret Houlihan, for the show's 11-year duration.
"We will forever hold that title," the actress, now 85, tells Yahoo Entertainment, noting that the fractured viewing habits of the streaming age combined with modern methods of measuring ratings means that today's scripted fare will never see Nielsen numbers like "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen" achieved. "There's five million shows out there now that are competing, and they can no longer evaluate ratings like they could when we were on. So we will retain that record, which is okay with us!"
Swit does have one bone to pick with the series finale, and that has to do with the happy ending that the show's writers came up with for Houlihan. With the Korean War winding down, Margaret spends much of the finale contemplating whether she wants to head to Tokyo or Belgium for her next overseas post. Ultimately, though, she opts to return to the U.S.A. to work at a hospital, citing her father — a career army man — as the reason for her decision to return stateside.
"I've always looked to my father for guidance," Margaret tells her surprised colleagues at their farewell dinner. "When he makes up his mind about something, he does it no matter what anybody says. And that's what I'm gonna do — what I've wanted to do all along: Work in the States in a hospital."
Beautiful sentiments... but not sentiments that Swit necessarily agrees with. "I didn't think that was correct for my Margaret," she confesses. "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."
Reflecting on the finale now, the actress thinks that bringing Margaret home might have been a move by the show's creators, Larry Gelbert and Gene Reynolds, to lay the groundwork for a Houlihan-led spin-off. (The duo did go on to create AfterMASH, a sequel series starring Farr, Morgan and William Christopher as Father John Mulcahy, that only lasted two low-rated seasons from 1983 to 1985.) "Maybe they had some visions of another show with her in a hospital in America," Swit muses. "I don't know, but I really felt that was not quite right for Margaret in my heart."
Swit says that she didn't get the chance to talk to the writers about her preferred version of her alter ego's future, one that would have sent her to Vietnam. "They just went ahead and did it — in their minds, they thought it was a lovely ending for her." But the actress did get to write the heartfelt speech that Margaret delivers to her fellow nurses on their final night together. "I was consumed with writing that. And 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."
Today, Swit continues to contribute to a good cause as a vocal animal rights activist, selling SwitHeart perfume and her memoir through her official website, with proceeds benefitting various animal-related non-profit groups. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of M*A*S*H's series finale, and the belated 50th anniversary of its series premiere last September, Swit shared other remarkable stories from her time at the 4077th, including why she led the charge to phase out Margaret's infamous nickname — "Hot Lips" Houlihan — during the run of the series, and the motivation behind Hawkeye and Houlihan's extra-long lip-lock in the final moments of "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen."
The cast was ready to say goodbye and farewell
Although M*A*S*H fans would have happily stuck around the 4077th for another five years, Swit says that she and her co-stars began seriously thinking about the series finale almost two years before they actually filmed it. "You get to the point where you're afraid to start repeating yourself," she recalls. "The writers didn't want to run out of ideas, and we didn't want to repeat jokes." Because of the finale's demanding production schedule — and an accidental fire that destroyed parts of their set — "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen" wasn't the last episode the cast shot together. That honor went to the penultimate half-hour "As Time Goes By," in which Margaret spearheads an effort to assemble and bury a time capsule on the mobile hospital's grounds.
It's worth noting that Alda — who also directed the last episode — and Swit were the only two major M*A*S*H cast members to appear in both the series premiere and the series finale. (Christopher made his debut as Father Mulcahy in the third episode of the freshman year, replacing George Morgan originated the role in the pilot; Farr first appeared as Klinger in the fourth episode.) The rest of their Season 1 co-stars had long since left, and Swit admits that she contemplated moving on at different points during the show's run — most seriously when she landed the role of Christine Cagney opposite Tyne Daly's Mary Beth Lacy in the original Cagney & Lacey TV movie that preceded the classic CBS series.
"I was very tempted [to leave] after I did that movie," she says. "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 Swit was immediately overruled by her bosses at 20th Century Fox, which declined to let her out of her M*A*S*H contract to reprise her role in the ongoing series. (Meg Foster played Cagney in the first six episodes, and was replaced by Sharon Gless for Season 2 and beyond.)
"20th Century Fox said: 'Forget it — you're not going anywhere,'" Swit says now. "I was like, 'Oh, I can't?' And they said, 'Yeah, we're not gin gonna let you go.' 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!"
Why Swit cooled on ‘Hot Lips’
Margaret Houlihan may have remained at the 4077th until M*A*S*H's not-at-all-bitter end, but her alter ego — "Hot Lips" Houlihan — disappeared much earlier. That nickname was a holdover from Richard Hooker's 1968 novel, which inspired Robert Altman's 1970 feature film, where the late Sally Kellerman played the role. In both cases, Houlihan's affair with Hawkeye's foil, Frank Burns (played by Larry Linville in the TV version), is the source of her moniker, and since that relationship carried over into the early seasons of the show, so did Hot Lips.
But Swit never liked Margaret's other name. "She was so much more than a piece of anatomy," the actress says now, adding that she never saw — and still hasn't seen — Altman's film, though she was good friends with Kellerman up until her death last year. "I kept telling the writers, 'She's more than this.'"
The end of Hot Lips coincided with the end of the Burns/Houlihan romance. In the third episode of Season 5, Margaret returns from a stay in Tokyo engaged to a handsome lieutenant colonel named Donald Penobscott — a storyline that Swit says she advocated for. "I would tell the writers that we could not continue the relationship I had with Frank," she recalls. "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 had the other doctors had no respect for. It was difficult to keep justifying that relationship."
Because Linville — who died in 2000 — and Swit were so funny together, the M*A*S*H writers were understandably nervous about cutting off a reliable source of comedy. "You don't want to let go of a joke," she says, with a knowing laugh. "But I said, 'You're just gonna have to.'" Swit remembers pitching the idea of Margaret finding new love on a between-seasons conference call. "I told them: 'Can you imagine what fun you're going to have with Larry when I come back to town and I tell him I'm engaged? He'll rip the doors off of the mess tent!' And that's exactly what they had him do. So we were all of the same mind."
Linville left the show at the end of Season 5, replaced by David Ogden Stiers' Charles Emerson Winchester, by which point Margaret's nickname was largely phased out as well. But Hot Lips did return sporadically over the next six seasons, most notably in the Season 7 episode, "Hot Lips is Back in Town," where Margaret and Donald officially divorced, and one of her former flames suggests they renew their relationship — an offer she refuses. "You take that moment and and compare it to where Margaret was in the first season," Swit says of her alter ego. "That woman grew! And I delighted in that."
Hawkeye and Houlihan, sittin' in a tree
As the longest-serving cast members on M*A*S*H, Alda and Swit always had a special bond off-screen. And Hawkeye and Houlihan were bonded as well, sharing a mutual admiration for each other as medical professionals... and a mutual attraction that they resisted acting upon for years. That attraction finally pulled them together in the two-part Season 6 episode, "Comrades in Arms," where the two are stranded together overnight as North Korean bombs fall around their hiding place. After a heart-to-heart talk, they fall into each other's arms. That one night together didn't lead to a lasting romance, but Swit says it was a pivotal moment for both characters.
"They became loving friends," she explains. "There are different kinds of love, and there was a very strong love between them. If you look at the series over time, their relationship grew and deepened. In the beginning, Margaret thought he was a genius surgeon, so there was respect there. After they have their affair, they can't go forward with that, but they have to acknowledge the love and care that they gave to each other in that moment."
"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," Swit continues. "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."
The series finale calls back "Comrades in Arms" when Hawkeye says goodbye to Margaret with a kiss that makes the rest of their remaining colleagues more than a little uncomfortable. "It's the longest kiss in television history," Swit says, laughing. "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."
She had his number
While Hawkeye departs the 4077th by air, but Margaret leaves by land — driven away in a jeep as the lone stragglers wave goodbye. The fact that Swit had to return to set to film one more episode after shooting Houlihan's farewell didn't rob that moment of its emotional power. "As I was driving off in that jeep, I looked back and I saw David [Odgen Stiers] put his hand on his heart," she recalls. "That gesture said so much. In that moment, he was Winchester, but he was also David, and I was Margaret and Loretta."
Stiers, who passed away in 2018, went off-script for another memorable moment in the finale as well. For much of "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen," Winchester and Houlihan are at odds after she helps him secure his dream job — a chief surgeon position at a Boston hospital — and he's resentful of her efforts. But the duo make up in the closing moments of the finale, with Winchester gifting her a book of poetry to Houlihan. She opens the cover and smiles at him, and Swit reveals that smile was prompted by something that Stiers wrote inside.
"I used to tease David all the time that we could never reach him during our hiatuses," she says. "We were all close friends and I adored him, but he was his own person. He would call us! I would tease him about being a lone wolf. I remember saying, 'I don't have your number — what if I wanted to invite you to a party?' And he said, 'Maybe I wouldn't want to come to your party!' It was our running gag."
So as a parting gift, Stiers finally gave Swit what she'd been asking for. "When I opened the book, David had written his phone number inside," she says. "So my reaction in that moment was appropriate either way. There was so much of all of us in our characters: as Houlihan, I was touched by Winchester giving me that book, and as Loretta, I was touched by my friend David doing that for me. The love and friendship in that reaction was very real."
M*A*S*H is currently streaming on Hulu