By Sue Reilly
Updated March 12, 1979 12:00 PM

She plays the sex-object role of Major “Hot Lips” Houlihan on CBS’ M*A*S*H, but a case could be made that Loretta Swit has the most levelheaded (and soft-hearted) passions of any actress in situation comedy today. She crusades off-camera against cruelty to animals, anti-Polish prejudice and the social pressure to marry. Loretta’s causes also include (despite the reactionary role that pays her some $20,000 an episode) feminism.

When M*A*S*H premiered in 1972 Major Hot Lips was a humorlessly gung-ho nurse and a hot-pantsed victim of the leering machismo of men at war. “But as Loretta became more socially aware,” says producer Burt Metcalfe, “she would suggest little changes in Houlihan’s dialogue and motivation that made the character more dedicated, deep and human.” Swit’s counselor was not a consciousness-raising group but M*A*S*H‘s simpatico star, Alan Alda. “I think of Alan as a teacher,” says Loretta. “He is so involved in women’s lib and has helped me to have confidence in myself. He is a gentle, kind man and I owe a lot of my transformation into a liberated person to him.”

The issue first jelled for her while working on the 1972 feminist film Stand Up and Be Counted with Jacqueline Bisset. “I realized that sexist put-downs happened even to beautiful, wonderful people like Jackie, when one poisonous columnist wrote that she wished Jackie would get a wedding ring from Michael Sarrazin for Christmas,” Loretta recalls. “Jackie was humiliated. It was so stupid because she just didn’t want to get married.

“A few months ago I ran into sort of the same thing. I was dating a man in New York [stockbroker Dick Farwell] and people were constantly asking if we were going to get married—as if it were my last chance and I was dying to do it. Unfortunately, he told someone he thought it was inevitable.”

So the fact that Loretta carefully guards her age—she’s in her late 30s—is really designed more for the benefit of casting directors than boyfriends. She dates around—a sometime current escort is Frenchman Phillippe Mondelin—but remains securely a bachelor woman. “I’m not interested in being married,” she says bluntly. “I have a career and friends and things I care about doing. I don’t want a lot of other demands. And, thanks to Alan, who has deep insight about women, I don’t feel guilty anymore about not wanting a family. My parents and friends are my family.”

That includes especially her fellow M*A*S*H-ers. Loretta still “adores” tennis buddy Wayne Rogers, who left his Trapper John role four seasons ago. Likewise McLean Stevenson and his successor as C.O. of the unit. She gushes, “There ought to be a Harry Morgan in every home.” As for the transvestite Corporal Klinger, “Jamie Farr is such a nice guy you just want to hug him.” Loretta is close enough with Alda’s family that she corresponds regularly with his three daughters. Sometimes the good feelings slop over in public. “Each year we pick a very nice ethnic restaurant and set out to have a quiet little cast dinner party,” says Loretta. “But somehow we always end up throwing food and flipping napkins.” Tattles Farr: “Loretta can be one of the boys. She likes to fill surgical gloves with water and put them in people’s purses or attaché cases.”

Swit’s upholsterer father, Lester, and housewife mother, Nellie, expected worse when their only daughter brazenly left their Passaic, N.J. home for show business. “I always wanted to be an actress,” Loretta recalls. “Luckily, my mother loved movies and we would go to double features and sit through both films twice.” Loretta remembers herself as “a fat little kid with braces who was very, very shy.” Maybe so, but later at Pope Pius XII High School she was a cheerleader and active in drama. After graduation she was off to New York (“Mom practically threw herself in front of the door”) and Gene Frankel’s Theatre Workshop. She barely scraped by, working in odd jobs and sharing a dingy apartment with a pet rat named Sidney. Now Swit repays her first mentor, who still remembers her “total dedication,” by contributing money to Frankel’s company.

Loretta’s first shot came in 1965, understudying the role of Ellen Gordon in Any Wednesday on Broadway. “It was the perfect break-in. I rehearsed twice a week in the lead and never had to perform—not once,” says Loretta. “When that run came to an end, I got to stand in the unemployment line and say, ‘I’m an actress.’ ” For the next three years she toured as one of the Pigeon sisters in The Odd Couple (with Don Rickles and Ernest Borgnine) and then as Agnes Gooch in the national company of Mame, with Celeste Holm and later Susan Hayward. After the run she went to L.A. for some R & R. In spite of a deflating early experience with an agent (“he told me my name sounded like a bad nose job looks”), she dropped by the office of Damon Runyon-esque agent Fred Amsel, who growled, “You might get in something, if you’re lucky.” She tried out for a Gun-smoke episode—and made it. After similar scores on Mannix and Hawaii Five-0 Amsel conceded, “You’re pretty lucky.” Yet when she tried out for M*A*S*H in 1972, auditioning against dozens of other actresses, Swit deliberately did not bring along her action-show clips lest they prejudice her shot at Hot Lips, then regarded as a comedienne bit.

Though she was up for an Emmy, un-precedently, for every one of the first six seasons of the show and never won, Loretta still sometimes signs her autograph whimsically as “Sally Kellerman.” (Sally played Hot Lips in Robert Altman’s original 1970 movie of M*A*S*H.) Yet Swit’s four-bedroom English cottage high in the Hollywood Hills suffers no identity crisis. She has added a high wall and a patio and turned the basement into a pub. Aided by designer Doug Hiatt, she has filled the place top to bottom with collections of crystal, pewter, bronze, silver, straw baskets, porcelain rabbits and Chinese clay figurines. The exquisitely blended furnishings are English, Chinese and French, but the atmosphere is tout-de-Swit. (Dusting it all is Teresa, a half-Chinese, half-Spanish housekeeper who is encouraged to call Swit “kiddo.”) “It’s really my place and everything in it I love.”

The lucky dogs (“my beautiful babies”) who share the house are four Pekingese and a Peke-a-poo, a newly popular breed that results from mating Pekes and poodles—in this case one supplied by Sammy Davis Jr. Loretta is a zealous supporter of Cleveland Amory’s Fund for Animals campaign and this week plans to follow Brigitte Bardot’s footsteps to arctic Canada to protest the annual slaughter of baby seals. “My God, it’s a tragedy,” she says. “We’ve all got to do something.”

The trip is more serious than most of Loretta’s recent solitary flights from fame to Australia, Thailand and Europe. She took her second-generation parents (and a film crew) to Poznan last year for the Polka Festival, but usually, she says, “I love getting out on my own and meeting people. It’s hard when you’re on television. Men, especially, feel foolish coming up and saying, ‘Gee, I love you on TV. Let’s be friends…’ ”

By way of tribute to Loretta’s own value as a friend, actress Madlyn Rhue recalls, “Awhile back when I was going through a really bad time, Loretta was available night and day. If I called, she came. I don’t know how many dates or dinner parties she canceled, but she was always free. She cares, and I mean cares.”

Swit’s M*A*S*H producer Metcalfe likewise praises her “dogged determination. She will put in a 10-hour day and then I will find out she has a horrible viral flu. But she will never mention it.” When she answers what may be M*A*S*H’s last reveille next year (some of the actors talk as if eight seasons are enough), Swit will move over to ABC under a contract she signed in 1974. “Listen, no one wants the exact same thing as anyone else,” she says. “But I love my work and I love my friends. I can’t imagine having a happier life.”