Tinseltown Talks: M*A*S*H's Loretta Swit paints to help animals

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On screen, she amused TV audiences as feisty nurse Maj. Margaret Houlihan for 11 seasons in the highly acclaimed late '70s/early '80s comedy war drama, M*A*S*H. But away from the cameras, Loretta Swit surrounded herself with paintbrushes and watercolors instead of scalpels and plasma.

A collection of her paintings appears in "Switheart — The Watercolour Artistry & Animal Activism of Loretta Swit" (see SwitHeart.com).

Published in January, Switheart is written by Mies Hora with the full support and participation of Swit who provided dozens of images for the book. Proceeds will help fund programs dear to the TV legend's heart.

"I've always used my artwork to support charities," said Ms. Swit from her home in Manhattan. "We plan to help many animals from the book sales."

Swit, who turned 79 in November, says she has always dabbled in art.

"As a child, my mother was forever telling me to go outside and play, but I wanted to just sit at the table with my sketchpad and pencils and doodle away," she recalled.

The animal world has also always been a part of hers.

"My parents said even when I was just a tot in a carriage and I'd see a dog, I would get all red in the face, giggly, and yell out `doggie, doggie, doggie!' and wouldn't stop," she laughed.

While she can still turn red at the sight of an animal, these days it's triggered by witnessing animal abuse or misuse of any kind.

"A fur coat represents the death of 80 animals," she said in a horrified tone. "Fake fur has come a long way. It's twice as warm and just as beautiful — if not more so — than real fur. I have two of them and they're so realistic I wear a button to say it's fake!"

Swit's love of animals was known to M*A*S*H writers who incorporated it into the season 6 episode, "Images," where her character develops a fondness for a stray dog in the camp.

"The dog gets killed by a jeep and Margaret ends up in tears partly because of the dog but also because the story is woven into the stress of working in a wartime O.R. The writers knew about my animal activism and brilliantly used it to develop Margaret's character."

Swit wasn't the only M*A*S*H star with talents beyond the camera.

"Gary Burghoff (`Radar') did the most magnificent sketches of birds and also played a mean set of drums," noted Swit. "David Ogden Stiers (`Charles') is a brilliant musician who works with orchestras and he would go off on weekends to the theater and perform Shakespeare."

As one of the most celebrated TV shows ever produced, Swit says it didn't take long to realize she was involved with a special series.

"The realization was really from the outside-in at first," she recalled. "I would go out to do interviews and from people's response learned how important the show was becoming. The genius of M*A*S*H was the brilliant writing that was always different, fresh, and unexpected. Our tight-knit ensemble could transform the scripts into stories that were funny and entertaining and yet touching and profound. The show hasn't been off the air since it went into syndication after the third season."

Of all her fellow cast members, she says Harry Morgan — Col. Potter was especially popular on the set.

"Everyone loved Harry," she recalled. "He wasn't just a colleague, but a leader, a father figure, and friend to us all. And as hard as the job was, if Harry was in a scene, you knew it would be fun. Even after working all week together, Harry, his wife, and I would have lunch on weekends because we just liked being together."

During production, Swit used her artistic talents to express her affection for the entire cast.

"I did drawings of the guys and presented each with one as a Christmas gift," she said. "Art is just something I did and probably took it for granted for a long time. While I never took any lessons, others have given me advice and helped me to grow as an artist over the years and I talk about that in the book."

But much of her art always focused on animals and nature because, she says, "I love my subjects so much."

"Perhaps I see animals in a different way because I have so much passion for my activism," she adds. "I'm doing anything I can to better their lives."

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 600 magazines and newspapers.




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