Margaret "Hotlips" Houlihan
Loretta Swit as Major "Hot Lips" Houlihan
M*A*S*H character
Vital information
Rank: Major (0-4), U.S. Army
Job/Role in Unit: Head Nurse at the 4077th M*A*S*H
Home: Fort Ord, California, U.S.
Hair Color: Blonde
Eye Color: Blue
Height: 5'7"
Weight: 125 lbs.
Family/Personal Information
Born: 1920
Birthplace: Fort Ord, California, U.S.
Nationality/Race: American/Caucasian
Spouse(s): Lt. Colonel Donald Penobscott (divorced)
Relatives/Children: Alvin "Howitzer" Houlihan (father)
Mrs. Alvin Houlihan (mother)
an Unnnamed sister who was a captain
First appeared in: "Pilot" (Season 1)
Last appeared in: "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen" (Season 11)
Appeared on/or in: MASH film / M*A*S*H TV series
Played by: Sally Kellerman in MASH film
Loretta Swit in M*A*S*H TV series

Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan was a fictional character first created in the book M*A*S*H: A Novel About Three Army Doctors by Richard Hooker. Actress Sally Kellerman portrayed her in the Robert Altman film adaptation (where the character was renamed "O'Houlihan"; however, like many of the M*A*S*H* characters, Hot Lips is probably best known from the television series, where her part was played by actress Loretta Swit. Having the advantage of an 11-year run on television, Swit's Houlihan became a significantly more developed character than originally portrayed in the film by actress Sally Kellerman, in many ways demonstrating characteristics that would have been almost antithetical to the cinematic Hot Lips.

Real-life InspirationEdit

Main article: Prototypes for Margaret Houlihan

Several real-life Korean War MASH nurses are said to be the prototypes for the character of "Hotlips Houlihan". Most notable among them is Capt. Ruth Dickson, Chief Nurse of the 8055th MASH. Also mentioned is one "Hotlips Hammerly," said to be a very attractive blonde, of the same disposition, and also from El Paso, Texas. A third name found in some internet resources is Capt. Jane Thurness. All of them were career Army nurses who eventually rose to high rank.


Major Houlihan is a member of the Army Nurse Corps and in charge of all the nurses at the MASH 4077 unit. She is devoted to her army career, having been born into the tradition. Her father, Colonel Alvin "Howitzer Al" Houlihan, was her role model for her career. {An inconsistent later episode shows that he was in the cavalry instead of the artillery and that he is alive-although in a early epsiode she refers to him as dead} (Season 3 when asking Frank for money, she refers to her father being dead and her mother being a drunk and kleptomaniac.) As an army brat, she was born in an army hospital and grew up on army posts, most notably Fort Ord.

Personal lifeEdit

On their wedding night her parents gave each other gifts-her father received a .25 pistol about as big as a cigarette lighter and her mother received a whiskey flask. Both her parents are divorced. Her mother is an alcoholic kleptomaniac whose antics of either being dried out or being bonded from jail take up nearly all of Houlihan's salary. In one early episode Margaret remarks that her younger sister, who is only a Captain, is getting married. In one episode on her birthday and she is lost in Korea with Klinger she confesses that she envies him for having something she never had, a hometown, because as an army brat she never had one. One episode "The Gun" has a goof in which has Houlihan remarking over a pistol Burns had stolen from a patient is that of an 1873 Colt's Single Action Army revolver, sometimes referenced as the "Peacemaker"; in fact it is a model 1921 US Army revolver. She has a knack for winning MASH 4077 betting pools; her favorite song is When the Caissons Go Rolling Along and her greatest fear is loud noises. Although she acts tough, she can be a emotionally vulnerable person (coming from a broken home with a distant father and an alcoholic mother) she devotes most of her energies to caring for her nursing staff and her Army career, although not only does she have to put up with Major Burns-who dashes her hopes of leaving his wife to marry her, an unfaithful husband {Penobscot}, and a Sgt front line lover {Scully} who also do not give her the emotional caring that she secretly craves; she has to equally put up with civilians in uniform who deeply offended her upbringing of military duty-such as a drunken commanding officer Henry Blake who exercises no discipline at all and Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John and later B.J. Hunnicut to whom the Army is one big joke which deeply offends an "army brat" like herself. During the series Houlihan character varied from a strict soulless by-the-book army nurse then to a crazy party girl and then to someone who is afraid to restrain a hysterical patient because she has to touch him...depending on who was writing the character for her.

Relationship with othersEdit

Hot Lips spent the early part of the series battling Hawkeye and Trapper along with Frank and, additionally, criticizing Lt. Col. Henry Blake for his lack of authority and when not going over his head, filing formal complaints. Many early jokes were at her expense, such as when a gassed boxer fell on her and Frank and when she said the oxymora description of Hawkeye and Trapper John: "They're ruining this war for all of us!" While she didn't seem to hate Henry as an individual, she once described him as a "golf playing figurehead" and later as a "fly fishing impostor". She also referred to him as "Col. Bubble-Head." Henry generally let her criticisms roll off his back, but at one point he mocked Hot Lips by saying that she'd gone over his head so many times she'd given him "athlete's scalp" and another time he refers to her as Herman Goering in drag. Still, she and Frank both wept for Henry when they heard of his death. By contrast, she got along very well with Colonel Sherman T. Potter, the camp's 2nd CO, who was something of a father figure to her. A running gag is that Houlihan relationships with men {Frank Burns, Donald Penobscot, and {Jack Scully} are all disasters-when she confess to Hawkeye that she is looking for love and never finding it-Hawkeye tells her in a compassionate way that she will know when this happens-in contrast with early episodes of the series which hint that Houlihan had relationships with every General in both stateside and in the Asia-Pacific theater-with the exception of Douglas MacArthur!  There's another running gag where the male main characters give her a big dip/kiss when saying "good bye" to her - Hawkeye does it several times and Henry does it in his last episode; "Hot Lips" also kisses Col. Potter in an episode while he's drunk "I like a major with hot lips!".   She does like pet dogs and has a gift of learning the Korean language. In episode "Run for the Money" {11/9} Houlihan is jealous of the head nurse of the 8063rd MASH Judy "Parallel" Parker who stole a Chief Petty officer stationed on the USS Coral Sea {CV-43} from her. This, however, is a goof; the Coral Sea never served in the Korean theater. In "Hot Lips and Empty Arms" Houlihan confess that she let a rival marry a rich doctor and who ended up with a fine house; a swimming pool and two children-all of which Houlihan bitterly regrets could have been hers! Like all members of the Staff of MASH 4077 she is an alcoholic-although in real life if she had been drinking that much she would have been useless a nurse and would have been kicked out of the Army and the nursing profession. In a later season episode an old friend of hers who was a drinking three day party girl like Houlihan -gets the DTs while drying out and has to be hospitalized-of course the creators of MASH couldn't let Houlihan leave the show this way.


The most noticeable of her physical feminine attributes among her male counterparts was her well-shaped voluptuous rear-end housed in very tight Army pants and was often literally the "butt" of jokes. One of which was when Hawkeye needed to give her an inoculation shot and coaxed her into letting him give it to her in the caboose. Hawkeye had only one word to say and that was "Magnificent!" Another was when a rash of practical jokes was sweeping through the camp including an unknowing Margaret parading around the camp in her bathrobe with the backside portion cut out resulting in several whistles, howls and a marriage proposal. (It was later revealed in the episode that Margaret made up the latter incident as part of B.J.'s elaborate practical joke on Hawkeye.) There is also an episode where Hawkeye is shoving a large amount of people in a jeep to break a world record. Hotlips became among them. As Hawkeye shoves her in, her butt is seen sitting out and she even asks him to make sure her "better side" gets in the shot.


Over the run of the show Margaret mellowed from a completely "by-the-book" head nurse (who was also not above using her romantic contacts with superior officers to attempt to get her way), to a more reasonable member of the cast who tempered her authority with humanity. Key episodes in this development were "The Nurses" which had Margaret making an emotional tirade to her nurses about how their disdain of her hurt her, which thoroughly stuns them, and "Comrades In Arms" where Hawkeye and Margaret make peace once and for all while lost in the wilderness. When the show ended Margaret was on her way back to the US to take up a position in an army hospital. Not coincidentally, the change came when Linda Bloodworth and Mary Kay Place joined the show's writing team.

Some fans regretted the change of heart in Hot Lips' character. While some loved how she became a kinder, more gentle person, others felt that she worked better as strict, no-nonsense antagonist with a slight problem regarding her passion. Even at her most antagonistic, she was generally allowed more humanity than her fellow antagonist, Frank Burns. {One goof is that several episodes show Houlihan wearing long hair--she would have had to have it cut short in a real military situation; likewise other episodes show her in out of Uniform wearing a non-military black sweater. Had Houlihan really been in Korean War, she would have been 32 {b.1920-gone to nursing college 1938-graduate 1942 and joins service}. Coincidentally this is close to the real age of Sally Kellerman and Loretta Swit!}


The name "Hot Lips" originates from an infamous scene in M*A*S*H, the movie, in which Margaret O'Houlihan is played by Sally Kellerman. During sex with Frank Burns, Margaret is unaware that the public address microphone has been planted beneath their cot, broadcasting graphic details of their sexual encounter throughout the camp on its public address system. "Yes Frank! Oh yes, kiss my hot lips, Baby" (presumably her labia). This nickname was used - without the sexual meaning - more in the earlier seasons of the TV series but was used less and less as time went on.


Several times throughout the series, the awards that Major Houlihan had earned during her service in the army could be seen on her uniform. She had earned the:

  • United Nations Service Medal
  • World War II Victory Medal-when Potter reviews her service record after his arrival in September 19, 1952 he remarks she has been in the service ten years {1952-10=1942} presumably she joined after she graduated from Nursing school -although there are no details if she was stationed in the US or overseas in either the Pacific or European theaters.


During the TV series, Margaret is absent from the episodes "The Moose", "Cowboy", "Henry Please Come Home", "The Incubator", "Deal Me Out", "The Chosen People", "Adam's Ribs", "A Full Rich Day", "Private Charles Lamb", "Love and Marriage", "The Late Captain Pierce", "The Bus", "Hawkeye", "Some 38th Parallels:, "The Novocaine Mutiny" and "The Interview".

The Swan song episode for Major Houliahan was Margaret's Marriage (TV series episode) when Houlihan is shown going off on her honeymoon-presumably the lonely Major would have found love at last and this would have been the last seen of her character; as it was indeed the last seen of Major Frank Burns ; however she was brought back again for the remaining 7 new seasons of MASH 4077

One possible goof in the series is that Houlihan's rank is shown as a Major; according to the 1959 US Army Almanac {p.149} after 10 years in the service the rank for an officer could be a Captain; a Major after 14 years service. However, a war veteran of demonstrated superior performance could very well have earned an accelerated promotion. It is also possible, given the anarchic nature of the M.A.S.H. T.V. Series Timeline and Continuity that Houlihan was actually 14 or more years into her career when the Korean War began. Lastly, Houlihan may simply have been promoted to Major as part of the Korean Emergency: the first few months of the Korean Conflict as a military undergoing deep defense-cuts by the Truman Administration was thrown into a major war with only weeks to build a major force in the field. Houlihan, as a professional soldier with an excellent record, would have made a logical choice for such a promotion during that time.


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