Why Loretta Swit Tried To Leave MASH (But Was Forced To Stay)

MASH star Loretta Swit planned to leave the hit comedy late in its run for another iconic show, but she was forced to remain by the network.

Loretta Swit tried to leave MASH late into the show’s run, but she was forced to remain. The TV adaptation of MASH softened the major characters considerably when compared to the Robert Altman movie. Alan Alda’s Hawkeye still loved to drink and pursue nurses, but unlike the 1970 film, he’s no longer married and his overreliance on humor is shown to mask his despair at the war. Major “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Loretta Swit) remained somewhat close to her movie counterpart during early seasons, though the character underwent major changes in later years.

Houlihan was initially used as a stern comic foil to the antics of Hawkeye and Wayne Rogers’ Trapper John, but starting from season 5’s “The Nurses,” the show allowed her to evolve. Swit also pushed for these changes, but MASH’s intense schedule didn’t leave her – or other cast members – much time to work on other projects. Swit is one of the few cast members to stay with MASH from beginning to end, but she came close to leaving following season 9 to pursue another series that became a major hit.

Swit Wanted To Leave MASH For Cagney & Lacey

loretta swit and tyne daly in cagney and lacey pilot

During a filming break on MASH, Swit signed on for the pilot to Cagney & Lacey. This groundbreaking cop drama focused on the titular detectives, which originally started life as a movie pitch. Focusing a series on two capable female cops hadn’t really been attempted before, with Swit originating the role of Cagney while Tyne Daly was cast as Lacey. The TV movie pilot aired in 1981 and proved successful enough for CBS to order up a series as a mid-season replacement. With the success of the pilot, Swit was very willing to return for a full season, but the network wasn’t willing to make that work.

Despite both shows being produced by CBS, they weren’t willing to let Swit exit MASH to star in Cagney & Lacey. By this point in MASH’s history, several significant characters had already exited, including Gary Burghoff’s “Radar,” Rogers’ Trapper John, and – most infamously – McLean Stevenson’s Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake. Swit obviously would have been missed on MASH, but moving into season 10, it could have survived her character’s exit. CBS didn’t see it that way, so despite the actor stating she wanted to move on, Swit had to stay with MASH for the remainder of her contract.

Swit Leaving MASH Would Have Changed Both Shows

Mash Loretta Swit the nurses

Cagney was recast not once, but twice, following Swit’s exit. Season 1 saw Meg Foster take over the role, but (according to TV Guide), an unnamed CBS executive found the actor “… too hard and not feminine” in the role and demanded she be replaced. Sharon Gless was hired, and the chemistry between her and Daly helped transform the show’s fortunes. Of course, it’s intriguing to think about how it would have worked had Swit been able to star.

Swit did some uncredited work in shaping the Cagney & Lacey pilot script and worked to ensure her character was portrayed in the right light, including not having to be saved by other police officers after being attacked by a suspect. MASH – which had several spinoffs – star Swit had a clear passion for Cagney & Lacey and no doubt would have helped push the boundaries of what female characters were allowed to do on TV during the ’80s. That said, the star still had plenty of great moments from MASH’s final two seasons, and the finale wouldn’t have felt the same if Houlihan wasn’t present.

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