Equally versatile at comedy and drama, Loretta Swit’s parents, Polish immigrants who settled in Passaic, New Jersey, were not in favor of her making a stab at a show business career. Performing on stage from age 7, however, nothing and nobody could deter her. A natural singer who trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts before finding work in repertory companies, her features were deemed a bit too plain and hard for ingénue roles so she attempted musicals and light comedy, imbuing her characters with a snappy, comic edge. Beginning with the 1967 national touring company of “Any Wednesday”, starring Gardner McKay, she forged ahead as a scene-stealing “Pigeon sister” opposite Don Rickles and Ernest Borgnine in an L.A. run of “The Odd Couple” and, from there, earned more laughs as the hopelessly awkward “Agnes Gooch” in the Las Vegas version of “Mame” starring Susan Hayward and (later) Celeste Holm.
Arriving in Hollywood in 1970, Loretta merited some attention by lightening up a number of dramas with her humorous, off-centered performances on such TV fare as Gunsmoke (1955), Mission: Impossible (1966), Hawaii Five-O (1968) and Mannix (1967). Her star-making role, however, came within two years of moving to the West Coast when she inherited Sally Kellerman’s vitriolic “Hot Lips” Houlihan movie character for the TV series version of M*A*S*H (1972). She stayed with the show the entire eleven seasons and was Emmy-nominated every season the show was on the air (except the first).
Although Loretta’s post-“M*A*S*H” career may appear less noteworthy (it would be hard to imagine anything that could top her bookend Emmy wins on the M*A*S*H series), she has nonetheless remained quite active and provided colorful support in a handful of films including S.O.B. (1981), Beer (1985), Whoops Apocalypse (1986), Forest Warrior (1996) and Beach Movie (1998). She also kept up her TV visibility with episodic appearances and occasional mini-movies, including originating the role of “Chris Cagney” in the TV pilot of Cagney & Lacey: Pilot (1981). Returning to singing on occasion, she also inherited the Linda Lavin role in the TV version of the stage musical It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman! (1975).
On stage, she made her Broadway debut opposite That Girl (1966)’s Ted Bessell in “Same Time, Next Year” in 1975 and later replaced Cleo Laine on Broadway in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”. Honored with the Sarah Siddons award for her title role in “Shirley Valentine” (over 1,000 performances) in Chicago, she has more recently toured in productions of “The Vagina Monologues” and played the musical title role of “Mame” in 2003. Loretta also was a five-season host of the 1992 cable-TV wildlife series “Those Incredible Animals” (1992).
Off-stage, Loretta was once married to actor Dennis Holahan, whom she met on the set of M*A*S*H (1972), in 1983. They had no children and divorced in 1995. Her natural spark and trademark blonde, curly mane are more prevalent these days at animal activist fundraisers. A strict vegetarian, she has served as a spokesperson for the Humane Society of the United States and has been multi-honored for her long-time dedication and passion to animals. She is also the author of a book on needlepoint (A Needlepoint Scrapbook), runs her own line of jewelry and exhibits watercolor paintings. As a result, little has been seen of Loretta on film and TV, into the millennium.
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