The art of charity: Loretta Swit’s pet cause

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Loretta Swit shows her artwork at Celebrity Attic. Proceeds from sales of her art are earmarked toward animal-friendly causes such as Wildlife Waystation. Photo by Michael Aushenker

Conan the lion, Sudan the leopard, a white tiger named Montana … these wildcats are not imaginary characters within actress Loretta Swit’s painted portraits. They actually exist.

The aforementioned felines live at the Wildlife Waystation in Tujunga Canyon. Last Friday evening, Swit, the busy actress best known as Margaret “Hot Lips” O’Houlihan on the long-running, Emmy-winning sitcom “M.A.S.H.,” invited Malibuites to join her at a reception where her watercolors of flora and fauna were on display. Proceeds from sales of her art are earmarked toward animal-friendly causes such as Wildlife Waystation.

“People still see her all over the world [in “M.A.S.H.” reruns],” said Steve Doolittle, founder of DewWest Network Marketing and Consulting. “This is a different way to see her.”

With the help of Nereida Heath, owner of Celebrity Attic auction house, and consultant Doolittle, Swit is getting her message out. The vice president of Actors and Others for Animals and an honorary board member of Wildlife Waystation, Swit also acts as chairperson for the Hooved Animal Rescue Protection Society and as spokesperson for Farm Sanctuary and the Humane Society of the U.S.

At Celebrity Attic’s storefront, located roughly in-between D’Amore’s Pizza and Thai Dishes on the east side of Pacific Coast Highway, Swit told The Malibu Times that she’s been painting since age six. She works only in watercolor.

“One year, I gave the boys paintings of themselves,” Swit said; “The boys” alluding to Alan Alda, Gary Burghoff, Jamie Farr, and other memorable performers on “M.A.S.H.,” Larry Gelbart’s searing, sardonic war satire.

One of the most successful situation comedies of all time, the popular CBS series won 14 Emmy Awards. Two of them went to Swit, in 1980 and 1982, for Best Supporting Actress.

At Friday’s art reception, Heath, owner of local business Mailboxes, Business & Shipping Center, explained that she opened Celebrity Attic in February as an “eBay for celebrities.” Heath has already auctioned pieces by Dick Van Dyke, Dean Cain, Gary Busey and Madonna.

In Swit’s case, the May 20 one-and-done art exhibit at Celebrity Attic was to promote Swit’s Web site, SwitHeartGallery.com, through which she sells her art and directs proceeds to animal rescue causes.

“Loretta is a platinum animal advocate,” said Doolittle, who began helping Swit brand herself as a philanthropic artist two years ago. “She’s stretched, playing in shows all over the U.S., so we’re helping her. Her giving and philanthropy come from her love of animals.”

Swit’s impassioned affinity for them has been lifelong. She has always had multiple pets and she currently lives with cats Anubis and Sahara, and a little dog named Charamusca.

“We destroy millions of dogs and cats each year because they have no homes,” she said, as a sad, doe-eyed Boston terrier stared out behind her from one of her watercolors.

Swit is no stranger to helping others. Following the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, Swit was at the time in Manhattan, where she was performing in “The Vagina Monologues,” and she went down to Javits Convention Center, grabbed a gas mask and helped out at Ground Zero.

“People didn’t realize that you could actually do that!” Swit said, adding that it was the words of fellow actress Kathleen Turner (instead of talking about helping, just do it) that inspired her to get involved. Swit hopes to “get people to start adopting pets” and end puppy mills.

“These are real animals,” Doolittle said, pointing around the room at the pet portraits and renditions of roosters.

One strong image featured a little dachshund’s floppy ears busting out of the picture plane and onto the matte board framing the painting.

In addition to “M.A.S.H.,” Swit played in 1975’s “Race With the Devil,” opposite Peter Fonda and Warren Oates, and longtime Malibu resident Blake Edwards’ 1981 bawdy comedy “S.O.B.” Swit admitted that, to this day, she has never seen the movie version of “M.A.S.H.,” the Oscar-winning Robert Altman film starring Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, in which Sally Kellerman originated her role. She said she didn’t want Kellerman’s performance to influence her take on O’Houlihan.

Today, Swit often performs onstage, such as in “Move Over, Mrs. Markham” in Overland Park, Ka. in mid-November. On June 13, she’ll host the New York gala fundraiser for Bideawee, another favorite charity.

Swit, who currently lives in Marina del Rey when she’s not residing back East, was happy to be back in her erstwhile neighborhood. The actress, who once lived not far from the Malibu Canyon area where “M.A.S.H.’s” famous opening helicopter shots of “the mountains of Korea” were filmed, said, “I used to live in Greenwich Village. Living here was like living in the Village. Like a little Village.”

For Swit, it takes a village to look after its children, even children of the furry, four-legged variety.