She might be best known for “M*A*S*H,” but Loretta Swit’s beloved television role as Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan was sort of an interlude.
An 11-year, history-making interlude, but one nonetheless.
“I’ve always done theater,” Swit said in a phone interview this week. “It was television that was an interruption. I come from theater.”
Her latest and favorite role – “My favorite is always the one I’m doing at the moment, which kind of sounds fickle, and I am.” – is that of Eleanor Roosevelt.
Swit stars in the one-woman production of “Eleanor Roosevelt: Her Secret Journey” at 7 p.m. May 5 at the Woodstock Opera House, 121 Van Buren St.
Written by Rhoda Lerman, the intimate production follows the years after World War I, as recalled by Roosevelt looking back from 1945. Described as educational, the show paints a portrait of Roosevelt.
“Her canny and clear-eyed intelligence helped her evolve from an ugly duckling into a powerful woman whose greater beauty emerged from the warmth and compassion she brought to issues of war, peace and human rights,” a description says.
Told from Roosevelt’s memoirs, it takes place after the death of her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Swit always admired Roosevelt and researched her thoroughly upon taking the role.
“If you love your character, you’re able to bring a lot of yourself into it,” she said. “You have to kind of be in love with your character, at least I have to.”
The play begins when President Truman asks her to head the American delegation to the newly created United Nations.
Knowing this would be a big step for any woman, Roosevelt reviews her life before deciding to accept the offer that ultimately landed her on the world stage.
“It’s a lovely insightful look into a very special human being,” Swit said. “And in many cases, women today are enjoying the fruits of her labor, the fruits of her being. She did so much for women during her time, during her tenure on earth.
“I just look at it as a privilege to be able to do justice to her with the writing. She’s just a very special character.”
Swit, who starred in the now legendary “M*A*S*H” from 1972 to 1983, was involved in theater before, during and after that experience, which she calls a “highlight” of her life.
No one could have imagined the legendary status the television show would reach, she said.
“Nobody would have that kind of foresight,” she said. “You’re talking about imagining a phenomenon.”
When first approached to sign a seven-year contract for the television show, Swit actually hesitated.
“It made me nervous because I didn’t know if I wanted to commit myself for seven years,” she remembered. “This was for the pilot. ... I said to my then agent, ‘That’s quite a commitment.’ He said, ‘Nothing runs for seven years.’ Of course, we joked about it for a long time afterwards.”
As Houlihan, Swit received two Emmy awards. She was one of only four cast members (the others being Alan Alda, Jamie Farr and William Christopher) to stay for all 11 seasons of the show.
She and Alda were the only actors to have been in both the pilot episode and the finale.
“I worked with some of the greatest people, my dear friends,” she said. “I had a lot of wonderful, wonderful experiences, all very good experiences working on ‘M*A*S*H’ for as long as we did.”
The show has endured, she said, because of its high quality and everyone involved. She thinks of “M*A*S*H” as film, each of its 251 episodes as individual feature films.
“It’s never been off the air. What’s happened is the kids growing up who are now parents have their kids watching and in some cases, their grandparents,” she said. “It’s always been a show you could do that with. It’s a family show.”
As for future roles, Swit said along with her continued theater work, she’ll possibly be working on a couple feature films, including a horror spoof about vampirism.
“I love the genre, and spoofing the genre is kind of fun,” she said.
She’s also starred in a traveling production of the comedy thriller, “Murder Among Friends.”
“It’s a far cry from playing Eleanor,” she said. “That’s the fun of what actors do, the big swing from one character to the next . . . I learned how to scuba dive for a role once, and I fell in love with the sport. I’m not sure I would have done that on my own.
“That’s one of the perks of being an actor.”By JAMI KUNZER – firstname.lastname@example.org