Former “M*A*S*H” actors visit Saddleback College

Actor Jamie Farr recounted humorous tales from his acting career on Friday night at McKinney Theater. (Michael Grennell)

Michael Grennell

40 years ago, the hit television show “M*A*S*H” aired its first season on CBS. On Friday, two of the show’s most memorable actors, Loretta Swit and Jamie Farr, spoke at McKinney Theater as part of the Professional Guest Artist Series put on by the Fine Arts and Media Technology program at Saddleback College.

“M*A*S*H” consisted of 251 episodes; over 11 seasons, airing from 1972 to 1983. The show took place in the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) unit, during the Korean War. After low ratings in its first season, the show was nearly canceled, but after changing time slots the next season, ratings improved greatly. From 1973 to 1983, “M*A*S*H” averaged over 18 million viewing households per year. The show’s two-and-a-half hour series finale, “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” was the most viewed television program ever in the United States, with almost 106 million viewers.

On “M*A*S*H”, Swit played the character Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, the head nurse at the 4077th MASH unit. Houlihan was portrayed as a sometimes hardnosed character, but, as Swit said on Friday, “(Houlihan) was set on being the best damn nurse in Korea.” Farr’s character, Corporal Maxwell Q. Klinger, was a corpsman assigned to the 4077th MASH unit, who attempted throughout the series to gain a psychiatric discharge from the Army by dressing in women’s clothing. Swit, Farr, Alan Alda, and William Christopher were the only four cast members to appear in all 11 seasons of “M*A*S*H”.

On Friday night, as Swit walked on stage, she cautioned the audience that she would be talking a lot. Before she spoke, she played a montage of highlights from her career in film, television, and stage. Memorable moments included her appearing on “The Muppet Show”, a musical number she performed in the television adaptation of the play “It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman” and scenes from “M*A*S*H” where her and Farr’s characters interacted.

“I thought it would be kind of cool for you to see I wasn’t born in the 4077th, and I didn’t die there either,” said Swit after the montage finished.

Over the following hour, Swit talked about many different things along with her time on “M*A*S*H”. She spoke about her family, her work with animals and setting up no-kill animal shelters, her watercolor paintings, and her work on stage. She talked in great detail about her most recent play she performed in, “Eleanor: Her Secret Journey”, a play about the life of former first lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt.

“I’m very excited to get (Roosevelt’s) story out to young girls,” said Swit. “I think it is important for girls to have such a role model.”

When talking about “M*A*S*H”, Swit spoke fondly of her time with the show. “‘M*A*S*H’ was, for sure, the ultimate experience,” Swit said. She pointed out the fifth season episode, “The Nurses”, as being one of her most memorable episodes. In it, Houlihan finds herself being left out by the other nurses.

“It was a heartbreaking moment for Margaret,” Swit said. “It showed how lonely it was at the top. It was a beautiful episode.”

After a brief question and answer segment with the audience, Swit introduced Farr to the stage. Farr got the crowd laughing right away, cracking jokes about his microphone not working, and his nose.

“Is my nose in the way?” Farr asked after an audience member in the front row stood up and moved.

Farr started by talking about his career before “M*A*S*H”, about working with famous comedian and entertainer Richard “Red” Skelton, and about traveling to Army camps in Korea and performing with Skelton during the Korean War. He told the story of how when he first appeared on “M*A*S*H”, he had no idea before shooting that he would have to wear a dress for his character. His character only had a few lines, and was only supposed to be in that single episode, but, as Farr said, “I came on for that one day, and I stayed on for 11 years.”

Farr continued to tell stories and jokes throughout the night, and answered a few questions from the audience before finally leaving. As he left, a montage of bloopers and outtakes from “M*A*S*H” rolled on the screen.

The next appearance in the Professional Guest Artist Series takes place on November 18, when the Shangri-La Chinese Acrobats will come to McKinney Theater.

Loretta Swit’s Website

Jamie Farr’s Website

Saddleback College Performing Arts and Music Guest Artists 2012-2013 Schedule

Actress Loretta Swit talks about her career on the stage, while appearing Friday night at McKinney Theater (Michael Grennell)

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