GREENSBORO — As Maj. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan on television’s “MASH,” actress Loretta Swit showed her feisty passion for nursing the war-wounded back to health — and for Maj. Frank Burns.
Now, at 81, the Emmy Award-winning actress focuses her passion on her paintings and helping animals and veterans.
She displays her animal activism and painting in her 2016 coffee-table book, “SwitHeart: The Watercolour Artistry & Animal Activism of Loretta Swit.”
On Saturday, Swit will visit Scuppernong Books to promote, sell and sign her book and answer questions. That will be followed by a 6 p.m. party celebrating the downtown bookstore’s fifth anniversary.
Proceeds from book sales go to her charity, SwitHeart Animal Alliance, to support animal rescue organizations and end animal suffering and cruelty.
“When you are in the animal environment, you are constantly trying to get money raised to help,” Swit said this week from St. Augustine, Fla., where she attended a benefit named for her at Ayla’s Acres No-Kill Animal Rescue.
Swit had given copies of the book as gifts to her North Carolina friends, Patsy Burke of Burlington and Lane Williamson of Chapel Hill. They took it to Scuppernong and suggested that the bookstore stock it.
Scuppernong owners asked whether Swit would consider a visit. Since Swit planned to fly home to New York through Charlotte, she decided to spend time with her friends and at Scuppernong.
“We are going to have a lot of fun, and we are going to do a lot of good,” Swit said.
Through 65 paintings, the book takes readers on a watercolor journey into the life of an animal activist. Most paintings in the book are Swit’s portraits of animals.
Swit offers anecdotes on each and her philanthropic work.
She’s now contemplating expanding the book and planning a second.
TV audiences might not know that Swit has been doodling, drawing and painting since childhood. At age 6, she entered and won a magazine art contest.
Her need for self-expression led to books, where she acted out the characters’ roles. That led to acting and eventually to television and “MASH.”
This month marks 36 years since the ending of “MASH,” a comedy-drama set in an American mobile army hospital during the Korean War.
The series, which ran from 1972 to 1983, is one of the highest-rated shows in U.S. TV history. It continues to air in syndication, attracting new generations of fans introduced by their parents and grandparents.
“Most of our stories were based on truth and the reliance on humor to get you through,” Swit said.
Swit was one of four cast members to stay for all 11 seasons, along with Alan Alda, Jamie Farr and William Christopher. She received two Emmy Awards for her work.
Several cast members have died: Wayne Rogers, McLean Stevenson, Harry Morgan, David Ogden Stiers, William Christopher and Larry Linville, who played Maj. Burns.
This week, five remaining cast members reminisced on Alda’s podcast: Alda, Swit, Jamie Farr, Mike Farrell and Gary Burghoff, whom Swit calls “our baby” at age 75.
“We are family,” Swit said. “We love each other.”
With so many troops fighting abroad, “MASH” will remain relevant, Swit said.
“The show itself is a classic because it is applicable today,” she said. “Unhappily, not much has changed... You have these incredible heroes out there. We played medics, but we have our military and our medics at the front giving service to us... We can never thank them enough. All we can do is try and love them and support them and show them in every way our eternal gratitude for their sacrifice.”
She narrated the 2013 documentary, “Never the Same: The Prisoner of War Experience” about POWs from World War II who came home and struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder.
She now helps to support the military’s efforts to bring back working dogs left behind in Afghanistan.
“The returning dogs come back with PTSD,” Swit said. “They are soldiers, and war has taken its toll.”
Other organizations work with the dogs as they are quarantined, re-trained and re-socialized, so that veterans can adopt them as service dogs.
“All of this is very costly, and that’s where we come in, to make that happen,” Swit said.
While Swit is best known for her head nurse role in “MASH,” she has done much more acting.
She guest-starred on other TV shows and on the Broadway stage. She appeared in the one-woman show “Shirley Valentine,” on stages from Chicago to Guam.
In 1992, she hosted the 26-part series “Those Incredible Animals” on the Discovery Channel.
She has no plans to quit acting. She now appears in the faith-based movie, “Play the Flute.”
She will start filming another feature, “Birds of Paradise,” in March or April, she said.
Later this month, she will conduct a Facebook interview featuring a Marine injured in Afghanistan, who waited for seven months to be reunited with his military dog.
On Oscar night, Feb. 24, she, Michael Learned and Lainie Kazan will receive the Icon Award at the annual Oscars party at the Palladium in Hollywood.
And, yes, she has two pets of her own, a rescued dog and cat.
She calls them “animal companions,” not pets.
“They are more than pets to us,” she said. “The more we get people to regard them as family members, the easier our job is going to be.”
“One of my favorite slogans is, ‘I hope I become the person my animal thinks I am,’” she said. “They are closer to the perfection we should strive for.”