Goodbye, 'Hot Lips' Houlihan hello, 'Shirley 'Valentine'

April 24, 1995|By Hap Erstein | Hap Erstein,Cox News Service

Loretta Swit owes her two Emmy Awards to Maj. Margaret Houlihan, the feisty head nurse role she played for 11 years on television's highly acclaimed series, "M*A*S*H." It is the part that brought her into America's living rooms and afforded her a measure of celebrity. People often associate her with "Hot Lips," which drives her a little batty.

Ask her how she feels about getting stuck in the public's consciousness as a member of the "M*A*S*H" ensemble and the actress' tone turns decidedly icy. "How can I answer that question? I can't know what the world's concept of me is," she says sternly. "I hope they see me as an actress who works very hard at everything, at every role that she takes on. That's how I'd really like to be known."

And so Ms. Swit, 57, continues to climb out from the "M*A*S*H" limelight, which keeps flickering in syndicated reruns. This week, she takes to the Morris Mechanic Theatre, starring in Willy Russell's one-woman play, "Shirley Valentine."

She and Shirley have been together, off and on, for the past five years, ever since Ms. Swit inherited the role from Ellen Burstyn in a Chicago production. She now nears her 500th performance as the downtrodden British housewife who gets a chance to escape from her dreary kitchen and drearier husband to go off on holiday in the Greek Isles.

As her agent warns interviewers, Ms. Swit does not like to talk about herself. Even an innocent question about how she relates personally to the character of Shirley gets deflected into acting school platitudes. "What you do is draw from the well of your own personality, your own experiences," she says, as if activating an automatic tape loop. "So there's always us in every character we play." Oh, OK.

Yet to hear her tell it, Ms. Swit had little in common with Major Houlihan in the show's early days. Gradually, by working with the writers, she was able to help shape the role and give her more depth.

"I thought that she was a big stretch for me," Ms. Swit says, warming up warily to the topic. "The creators would have many meetings in the first season about where they were going with this character. They didn't know and I would say, 'She's not there yet.'

"I think initially we were all a little less dimensional than we became," she says of the "M*A*S*H" gang. "It certainly took on overtones that you couldn't have planned. It evolved, but initially I think I was not very close to her values."

Even when "M*A*S*H" was being filmed, Ms. Swit was adamant about going off and doing stage work to keep from being stereotyped as an exasperated Army nurse.

"I think the powers that be who do create and hire and so forth were aware of the fact that this was just a facet," she says. "They didn't get hooked into that as what I do."

She debuted on Broadway in Bernard Slade's romantic comedy, "Same Time, Next Year," also an Ellen Burstyn role, and made several forgettable films, such as "Freebie and the Bean" and "Race With the Devil." As "M*A*S*H" was winding down, she played Chris Cagney in the TV pilot-feature for the series of "Cagney & Lacey," but the role went to Sharon Gless.

When CBS executives tried to talk Ms. Swit into doing a "M*A*S*H" spinoff that would follow Margaret Houlihan back stateside, she knew enough to say no. She can, however, reel off her vision of what happened to the character after Korea.

"I think that she stayed in nursing. I think that she got married. I think she had babies. I'd like to think that nothing would have made her happier than to marry a doctor."

Ms. Swit won't talk about it, but she, too, got married, in 1983, to Dennis Holahan, an actor she met when he did a guest shot on "M*A*S*H." They were divorced in 1989.

And so she is out alone on the Holiday Inn and college theater circuit. Ms. Swit considers herself primarily a stage actress and she spends much of her time now on tour -- rotating among "Shirley Valentine," "Same Time, Next Year" and A. R. Gurney's "Love Letters." Later this spring, she takes off for London to appear in the musical movie spoof "Song of Singapore," which she may travel with throughout Europe.

She is still sought for television series, though most of what she is offered is substandard stuff.

"It's like a marriage. You want it to last forever," Ms. Swit notes, then adds, "Well, you certainly don't want a series to last forever, but you want to go in there in the hopes that you will be able to develop the characters and the situations."

It is not easy to commit to a new series after being spoiled by "M*A*S*H," a show that pushed the boundaries of situation comedy. "I think we were very funny, but I think there was also a lot of other wonderful things going on there.

"Most pilots I see, I would not spend a lot of time with."

'SHIRLEY VALENTINE'

Where: Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Place

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, matinees at 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays; through May 13

Tickets: $17.50-$42.50

Call: (410) 625-1400

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