Next to Alan Alda, Loretta Swit won the most awards for acting on the TV show MAS*H.
Most fans would tell you that her character Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan had one of the show’s best character arcs.
Where Alda’s Hawkeye remained snarky and self-assured throughout the show’s run, Margaret grew beyond her character’s snappish nature (like in “Love Story” where she threatens to ruin Radar’s one shot of love) into a true friend to everyone in camp (like in “As Time Goes By,” where she’s the one collecting items from everyone for the time capsule).
For Swit, she knew this evolution would come, given how one-dimensional the character Hot Lips is in the movie MAS*H, on which the TV show is based (well, they were both based on the 1968 Richard Hooker novel MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors).
What you may not realize is that originally the character of Hot Lips had even less dimension than seen in the movie. Margaret wasn’t meant to be a big part of the MAS*H movie at all.
Margaret movie actor Sally Kellerman said when she auditioned, it wasn’t for the role of Hot Lips, but rather for a bigger character in the movie: Lieutenant Dish.
When Kellerman was instead offered the part of Hot Lips, she burst into tears upon looking over the script. She only saw four lines for Hot Lips in the entire movie.
After she dried her tears, she decided she wasn’t sad — she was mad. She called her agent up and told them to tell movie director Robert Altman to “go jump in a lake.”
Despite that less-than-professional response, Altman got back, assuring the actor that together, they would expand the character of Hot Lips by adding improvised scenes.
This caught Kellerman’s attention. She then saw doing MAS*H as an opportunity to really show off her chops as an actor, one on the level of Jack Nicholson in her craft. She agreed to do the movie, seeing it as an opportunity to expand the character and expand her career.
“MAS*H was a whole catharsis,” Kellerman told Newsweek in 1971. “It freed me of a lot of complexes. All I had played was these suffering women.”
Like Swit who followed her, Kellerman was recognized for her role as Margaret. She was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress award for her role in MAS*H, nearly snagging an Oscar.
In the end, Swit spent the most time with the character, though, taking “Hot Lips” well past the caricature Kellerman provided in the movie and into the complex kind of character the TV show proved to handle so deftly.
But we have to thank Kellerman for doing that initial work, making sure Margaret would become such a huge part of MAS*H’s enduring legacy as a top-tier mix of drama and comedy.
Kellerman wrote in her memoir Read My Lips that her time in the movie MAS*H was “the greatest experience of my entire career.”
But like Swit, she also got sick of forever being seen as “Hot Lips.”
“I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t push a button or two every time someone calls me Hot Lips,” she wrote. “I’ve been working for more than fifty years and made at least fifty movies, but for better or worse, I’m most notably remembered as Hot Lips Houlihan.”
She got well past the days of angrily responding that people should go jump in lakes, though. She even softened to the point of smiling a little at these slightly irritating fan interactions.
“Recently, as I walked through New York City, a truck driver leaned out the window and yelled, ‘Hey, Hot Lips!'” Kellerman said. “That put a big, crooked smile on my face.”