It’s a fact of life. At 79, there is no one on the planet who can rock a tube of red lipstick better than Loretta Swit. Although she’s well known by many for her roles in stage, film and television productions (most notably Major Margaret Houlihan in M*A*S*H), it’s almost eclipsed by her passionate talent for painting and her international reputation as an advocate for animal rights. Art and activism find a happy marriage in the release of her new book, SwitHeart, a coffee table edition of 65 full-color paintings and drawings, 22 photographs, and anecdotes about the furry and feathered friends that inspire her.
As she confided in our recent interview, “The toughest part of the book was deciding which images to use. My publisher, Mies (Hora), and I have concluded that we’re just going to have to do another one so as to fit everyone in!”
Proceeds from the book (which is available at SwitHeart.com) are donated to her ongoing campaign to end animal cruelty and suffering across the country and around the world.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: You first discovered your passion for painting when you were six. How have you sustained that passion for all of these years?
A: By painting, of course, you silly twit! If I’m sitting still, I’m doodling. Constantly! I had a touch of insomnia last night and was thinking about the latest painting I’m working on. I was up until 3 am. Sometimes things just happen. They occur. It could be a stroke or a color or even a background that suddenly makes a painting pop in a way it wouldn’t have in any other context. It’s an incredible journey for me and I sustain my love for painting … by painting! If I’m away from it or if I’m busy traveling, as soon as I can I get back down to it, it’s the first thing I want to do. It’s really not anything regimented. I see something, I’m moved by it, and it becomes my next project.
Q: After you won your first prize for art at such a young age, did you ever think of making that your career?
A: Looking back, it was kind of a cartoony sort of thing. I stalked my mother through the house until she finally agreed to submit my drawing. The next thing I knew, I won! My prize was a cute little pirate’s chest bank. I kept it for years—it was really adorable. It was thrilling for me at six years old to be recognized. As for thinking art could be my career, though, no. Never. Art is something I do the same way I breathe or sleep and it will always be a part of my life. But I also always knew I wanted to be an actor. This is what I wanted, this is what I’m doing and I can say that I’m living the dream. Other people go on vacations. What I do is my vacation because I love being there so much. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to combine wonderful travel with my work. When you’re doing evening work like being in a play, you have time during the day to paint and that’s where you’ll find me.
Q: How does your approach to painting compare/contrast with your approach to acting from a preparation and emotional perspective?
A: For me, they’re different but they both require craft. For instance, I’m a self-taught painter and I’m a hard-working, craft-oriented teacher. I believe in having a strong foundation of craft for your method, for your approach to whatever work you’re doing. There’s nothing mystical about acting but it’s infinitely interesting to me because it’s the study of human behavior. You never really know yourself inside and out because there’s always some new discovery for you. You evolve, you change, you’re affected. When it comes to painting, I very often feel that a higher power reaches out and guides you. For example, I only paint in watercolor and I feel that with watercolor you need the discipline to step back and quit. Otherwise, you can muddy and actually ruin your painting. Not so with oil painting where you have lots of do-overs.
I have had the almost spiritual feeling of something being produced by inspiration and intuition, tweaking colors here and there and then saying, “Did I just do that? That’s really good.” That said, I’m a very harsh critic of my own work. Maybe more lenient as I get older but I’m always taking into consideration that I am self-taught and have learned quite a lot over the years. I think if you’re earnest and committed and it’s a sincere effort, there is always even a small part of every painting that will speak to you and affect you. I compare this to movies. Maybe the movie overall isn’t that great but there’s a moment in it—even a small moment or scene—that stays with you long after it’s over.
Q: Which do you feel is more of a challenge – to act in a live play where there are no “do-overs” in front of an audience (no matter what goes wrong) or to act in a TV series where storylines are not only shot out of sequence but the same scenes are done multiple times as well?
A: They’re both challenging and they both have different rewards. I prefer the stage because I love the size of it. I love the feeling that I’m shot out of a cannon! I love to journey with the audience and feel that we experience all of those moments together and for the very first time. Therein lies tremendous challenge because even if you’re in a long-running show and have been saying the same lines over and over, the people in those seats are seeing and hearing something that’s brand new to them. What you’re creating is an intimate love story that invites them to get to know your character and witness how that character grows and evolves from start to finish.
In film, you’re shooting a character’s growth and feelings out of order, and it’s a huge challenge to know how it all works out without betraying that knowledge in the flow of nuance and energy the camera is capturing. Really good actors also don’t rely on the fact they can shoot a scene over and over until they get it right. I remember a story about Joanne Woodward where she was shooting a particularly emotional scene and something went wrong that required that entire scene to be reshot. She groaned about having to dig down to her toes and pull up all the energy again to re-deliver this highly-charged, high-voltage piece but that’s just what actors do. She was good, she was brilliant, and she was faithful to her craft.
Let me give you another example about attitude from a brilliant actor. Alan Alda. Alan and I were doing a scene we thought was really good. We finished and looked at each other, cheering about the moment of completion. Except something technical went wrong. We were directed to take the scene over again from the very top. We were so sure it was perfect. Arghghghgh! I couldn’t believe this was happening. Alan nudged me with his elbow and said, “Great! We get another chance to do it even better!” Now that’s a winning attitude I appreciate and I try to apply it to everything I do. You can always, always do it better the next time around.
Q: Actors are often warned against acting with children and animals because they will be ruthlessly upstaged. What, then, was it like for you to be a guest on The Muppet Show?
A: It’s like I died and went to Heaven! Seriously, the creativity was so thick and amazing that you couldn’t help but have a wonderful time. They flew me to London, put me up at the Dorchester, and I got to sing and dance around with a bunch of pieces of fur and felt and have the time of my life. I could rave about them forever.
Q: Favorite play you ever acted in?
A: It’s always whatever play I’m doing at the moment. Isn’t that what every actor says? Well, it’s true. I’m very fickle about that. I have a list of favorite plays, things I’ve loved that I completely adored. There are roles like Shirley Valentine that I went after before I had even closed the script. It’s a remarkable piece of theater written for a woman. I also loved doing Same Time, Next Year. Bernard Slade, in fact, wrote the first film I ever did so he really had me pegged to do the play. I loved the female character in it and, at that time, the play was very current in its notions about marriage and relationships. Too much has happened in our world since then to have the play current now but as a timepiece it’s an absolute jewel.
I also played Sister Aloysius in Doubt and Agnes Gooch in Mame and you couldn’t have had two characters farther apart! I think the more you have to stretch in different roles, the more fun it is for both you and the audience. I enjoyed doing Love Letters and The Vagina Monologues and Love, Loss and What I Wore—all fun stuff that was a joy to do and that I’d do all over again. It goes without saying that I loved M*A*S*H, too, because it was like doing a sweet little play every week with writers and actors I adored. It gave me the opportunity to work on a single character for an awfully long time and fortunately I had visionaries as producers who allowed me to continue to grow within that character. It was the first time in television that this actually happened, that Margaret continued to evolve, mindful of reruns and the order in which viewers would be catching the episodes.
Loretta at a Southern California book-signing with friend and actor Jeff Maxwell (aka Private Igor, the 4077th doofy cook).
Q: Had you seen the film version of M*A*S*H prior to the audition that won you the role of “Hot Lips?”
A: No, and it’s a funny story actually. I was in Hawaii at the time working with Jack Lord on Hawaii 5-0. By the time I came back, a lot of the flap about casting the TV version of M*A*S*H had already died down and I didn’t know they had already seen 200-300 women trying out for the part of Hot Lips. My then-agent called and asked me if I had seen the movie. When I told him I hadn’t, he said, “Great. No problem. Doesn’t matter.” He set up an appointment for me to meet Gene Reynolds, Larry Gelbart and Burt Metcalfe. He told me there wasn’t anything to prepare for or read and that it was just to show up.
My agent, meanwhile, had an offer for me to do a film with Olivia de Havilland which put me in orbit because I had always admired her. Out of courtesy, he called Fox to tell them he had had an offer for me to do a movie and that we were going to go for it if I didn’t get cast in the show because there was a conflict of dates.
Gene Reynolds told him, “Oh, we were just going to call you. We’ve decided to go with Loretta.” Anyway, I’ve been told that our series was closer to the book in terms of characters and episodic and, thus, closer than we ever were to the movie. After I got cast, there wasn’t really any reason for me to watch the film. Now and again I’ll be channel-surfing and catch what looks like the 4077th but it’s not really my M*A*S*H and I keep on going.
Q: In addition to an endearing ensemble cast, top-notch scripts and an artful blend of comedy and drama, M*A*S*H has the distinction of lasting longer on the air than the actual war it was depicting. Well over 30 years after the series finale, it’s still possible to channel-surf on any given day and find it playing in syndication. In your opinion, what accounts for the longevity of the show and its ability to resonate with viewers of all ages (even those too young to have watched it the first time around)?
A: Well, for one thing, the writing was superb and it just kept getting better and better. They also never repeated themselves. They kept coming up with one luscious idea after another and matching some of us together to see what would happen. Next came the extraordinary group of actors who also loved each other. You can always work on friendship and politeness but love is something that’s either there or it isn’t. It happened so deeply that, to this day, it’s the closest family I personally have ever had. We have always been there for each other. On the sad occasions when one of our own has passed away, we mourn them just as we would a flesh and blood family member and cry and hug and share favorite stories. That bond came across very clearly and without working at it in every episode we did. And audiences knew that.
There were also the core values the producers put forth, timeless values that hit people at just the right time and mindset to produce synchronicity. They were ready for a show about peace even though the backdrop of M*A*S*H was about war. Integrity, love, friendship, ambition—M*A*S*H had all of these things. It was about experts—expert doctors and expert nurses—doing their very best under the worst of circumstances. To be able to laugh at their clowning which was a relief for them and at the same time get a lump in the throat when things went wrong—it was a beautiful balance. Families could watch this show together because they trusted us and they trusted the writers to deliver something that was real, that was authentic and that reinforced the message we are all human.
Because we were on the air for so long, the children in those families grew up, got married, had children of their own and yet M*A*S*H is still a family thing. Our fan mail always reflected that. Little girls, for instance, who grew up to become nurses after the years of watching me play-act. For all intents and purposes, M*A*S*H was a sitcom—and I hate that word—but it was so much more. It was a slice of life and its own category that audiences trusted because everyone involved was giving their heart and soul.
It’s also funny that occasionally when I’m channel-surfing and I come across an episode, it instantly seduces me. I can sit there and recall in amazing clarity everything we were doing that day—whether I was needlepointing a pillow or Alan was playing chess with Mike. Sometimes I’ll even call my fellow actors and say, “Wow! Guess what I’m watching! Was this a great episode or what?” It’s almost like I’m seeing everything again for the first time and appreciating it even more.
Q: When actors play a particular role on TV for a long time, they can become so closely identified with their fictional personas that it can be challenging for audiences to accept them as anyone else. As the iconic “Hot Lips,” for instance, you were starring on Broadway in Same Time, Next Year at the same time M*A*S*H was on the air. Did you ever get a sense that the audience was murmuring, “Does Frank know about this?”
A: Never. Ever. Ever. And I can point to several reviews that support that. I remember one in particular—and I have to mention I was never someone caught up in reviews of my work—where a gentleman came up after a performance of Shirley Valentine and said, “I understand you don’t always read reviews. Well, I’d like you to read this one.” And it began, “If you’re headed to the theater in the hopes of seeing Margaret Hot Lips Houlihan, you’ll be disappointed in that way but joyous in being riveted for two hours and fifteen minutes by an actor on stage bringing so many different characters to life.” He took exception to people liking to come to the theater to see a television icon, but this goes back to my own relationship with the audience. If I believe in the character I’m playing, an audience will be swept along and believe it, too. If I do my best, the audience will respond to it.
Q: Speaking of painting, let’s talk about the gorgeous animals that fill the pages of your new book.
A: Yes, let’s. Enough about me. Let’s talk about them.
Q: Since furry and feathered subjects can’t sit still for a studio portrait like their human counterparts, tell us a little about the process you go through to capture their essence.
A: It’s a number of things, actually. It’s memory, it’s imagination. It’s doing a sketch of something I’ve seen, as well as working from photographs. Sometimes I’ll start a new project based on friends’ snapshots of their pets. Other times, I’ll draw inspiration from a picture in a calendar. Every painting in the book is accompanied by short stories about what inspired them.
The cover of the book, for instance, is my painting of a Jack Russell. He was a rescue pup from BIDE-A-WEE, which is the oldest animal rescue organization in Manhattan. I just can’t say enough good things about the remarkable work they do. Anyway, I was the recipient of five lovely little “mistakes” by two uneducated youngsters who knew nothing about spaying and neutering. Believe me, they know now! I took them to BIDE-A-WEE and they were fantastic in terms of giving them their shots, socializing them, and happily, placing them in forever homes. They scrutinize every adoption request thoroughly. In fact, it’s probably harder to adopt a dog from BIDE-A-WEE than it is to adopt a child from Russia.
Q: I’m assuming you had beloved pets when you were growing up?
A: I did indeed. My first little dog was named Cheetah. Seriously. Today I share my home with my little Yorkie and two 15-year-old cats. I was told the latter were littermates. My vet thought this was hilarious and said there was no way that cat parents could have produced a Siamese and a black and white tuxedo. I call Nubie—the black and white—my Velcro cat because he attaches himself to me and likes to just hang there while I walk around.
Q: Your love for animals and your passion to advocate for them go hand in hand. In general, how are we progressing in the fight to stop animal abuse, and if you could change any one aspect of this issue, what would it be?
A: First thing on the agenda would be to erase every single puppy and kitten mill off the map. It’s as disgusting as a bloodsport and a boil on the complexion of our society that we continue to allow these places to exist. Whenever we hear about one, we shut them down. Just as quickly, though, they pop up somewhere else. I have a friend who adopted a Yorkie that had been in a puppy mill. For the first couple of years, this poor little thing kept walking around in circles. They realized she was walking the perimeter of the cage she had grown up in through her whole ordeal as a baby machine. It’s a horror and the conditions are even more horrible.
Laws also need to be more stringent on what’s done with the “discards” from breeders, the dogs that don’t meet all of the standards to be show quality. This also goes along with the elimination of “backyard breeding”—another horrible and sad practice. Professional breeders have to pay a license to breed dogs but, of course, this doesn’t stop people from doing this in their basement and trying to make a profit from excessive inbreeding.
We need to step up in terms of educating people about the important of spaying and neutering. On top of that, if we can’t reach people on a compassionate level, it’s also costing tax-dollars every time an animal has to be euthanized. Multiply that by the millions of animals we put to death every year. We also need to ban the practice of selling dogs and cats at pet stores, many of which have come from mills. There’s no vetting of strangers who come in off the street and want to buy a live animal from a shop at the mall. Will those owners be responsible or will those “purchases” end up dead through no fault of their own?
Q: Tell me about the concept behind SwitHeart Animal Alliance and how your partnership with Mies Hora came about.
A: I absolutely adore Mies, mostly because he never disagrees with me! He’s a brilliant designer and editor and publisher and we couldn’t be prouder of this book. Funny story—Mies is Czech but for some reason I always assumed he was Dutch. Through the course of getting the book out there, I introduced him as Dutch. Well, he let me do it a few times and finally one day he said, “You know, I’ve been meaning to tell you that I’m actually Czech.” Down the road we were working on some marketing ideas and very mildly arguing about whose idea was better. “As a joke, I said, ‘you know, I think I really liked you better when you were Dutch!’ and we laughed and everything was fine from there. It has become our running gag and whenever we hit a roadblock, I tell him that I wish he was Dutch.
As for how it began, we met on a private plane on the way to Florida where I was receiving the Red Cross Humanitarian Award. I had my iPad out and he happened to notice some of my paintings. He asked if he could see it. He really loved them, we got to talking and everything just sprouted from there. The whole process took about a year—to me, it really doesn’t seem that long—but every bit of it was exciting in picking, choosing, writing, and defining what we wanted this book to say. Work is in progress on a second edition and—like the first one—proceeds from sales will go to give a voice to those who can’t speak for themselves.”