Sally Kellerman, Oscar-nominated ‘MASH’ actor, is dead at 84
By Christine Chung and Neil Genzlinger
Sally Kellerman, the willowy, sultry-voiced actor and singer whose portrayal of Maj. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan in the 1970 dark comedy “MASH” earned her an Oscar nomination, died Thursday at an assisted living facility in Los Angeles. She was 84.
Her son, Jack Krane, said the cause was heart failure.
In her decadeslong career in film and television, Kellerman was best known for her role as the strait-laced but alluring Army nurse in “MASH,” which landed her rave reviews and a Golden Globe Award.
The film, directed by Robert Altman, broke ground with its irreverence and its graphic depiction of a group of hotshot surgeons struggling to save horribly wounded soldiers at an Army surgical unit during the Korean War. (When “MASH” was adapted into the television series “M*A*S*H,” Kellerman’s character was played by Loretta Swit.)
Kellerman went on to appear in several other films directed by Altman, including “Brewster McCloud” (1971), “The Player” (1992) and “Prêt-à-Porter” (1994). Like other actors, she was attracted to working with Altman because of the leeway he allowed in interpreting scripts and improvising scenes.
After her star-making role in “MASH,” Kellerman sought to revive her career as a singer, performing in nightclubs like the Grand Finale in New York.
On the cabaret circuit, her performances garnered mixed reviews. Robert Palmer wrote in The New York Times in 1977 that she had “an intriguingly husky voice” and “the makings of an effective pop singer,” but he criticized her for some of the same qualities she was known for as an actor, such as her “breezy superficiality.”
Kellerman continued to work in film and on TV, accumulating more than 150 credits, including, in the past decade, on the series “Maron” (in which she played comedian Marc Maron’s mother) and “Decker,” and on the soap opera “The Young and the Restless.” At times she lamented being so identified with her “MASH” role.
“Did you know,” she said in an interview with the Times in 1980, “that when I started out on television, I could never get a comedy part? I was always a sophisticated, hard-bitten drunk, or the wife being beaten by her husband. But I’m still Hot Lips to everyone.”
Sally Kellerman was born June 2, 1937, in Long Beach, California, to John Helm Kellerman, a salesperson, and Edith Kellerman, who taught piano.
In her 2013 memoir, “Read My Lips: Stories of a Hollywood Life,” Kellerman described wanting to be a performer from an early age, when she was a “skinny little kid growing up in Granada Hills in the San Fernando Valley.”
“I must have come out of the womb singing and acting,” she wrote.
As a tall, chubby teenager, she harbored dreams of performing onstage but held them in secret until she was a senior at Hollywood High School, when she acted in its production of “Meet Me in St. Louis.”
At 18, then a self-described “jazz groupie,” she was offered a contract with prominent jazz label Verve Records, but by her account it was severed by her debilitating stage fright.
Still, she continued to pursue her dream of performing, studying with respected acting teacher Jeff Corey while taking college courses on the side to please her parents. Corey’s roster of students included future household names, among them Jack Nicholson, with whom Kellerman shared a goofy streak.
“In class it was almost always impossible for me to work on scenes with Jack because I’d be laughing so hard,” she wrote in her memoir. “If we had to kiss, forget about it. I’d fall off the couch in hysterics.”
She made her film debut in a 1957 movie called “Reform School Girl,” in which she had one line. In the 1960s she racked up more than 30 television appearances on shows including “The Outer Limits,” “My Three Sons” and “Star Trek.”
According to Dale Sherman’s 2016 book, “MASH FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the Best Care Anywhere,” Kellerman originally auditioned for a different role in “MASH,” that of Lt. Dish, and was miffed when Altman offered her Hot Lips; she thought that the part was minor and that Hot Lips was mostly there to be a target of abuse by other characters. He told her that she might be able to make more of it than appeared on the page.
“You could end up with something or nothing,” Altman was quoted as advising her. “Why not take a chance?”
She did. As promised, Altman gave her leeway to beef up the part, and it became one of the film’s most memorable performances. At the 1970 Cannes Film Festival, where the movie won the coveted Palme d’Or, Kellerman caused a sensation when she turned up.
“The bored paparazzi, tired of photographing actors from movies about peasants trying to save enough money to buy a tractor, followed her like hound dogs because in a festival full of true allegorical grit, the girl they called ‘Hot Lips’ was pure Hollywood gold,” Rex Reed, who was covering the festival for the Times, wrote. “She came on like a hippie Venus de Milo, waving her arms around her body like Carole Lombard, smiling like Veronica Lake, and walking like an anchovy. For three days the flashbulbs never stopped flashing.”
Kellerman’s other movies included “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” (1972) and “Slither” (1973). She had a busy year in 1980, appearing in the films “Foxes,” “Serial,” “Loving Couples,” “It Rained All Night the Day I Left” and “Head On.” She was the voice of Miss Finch in the Sesame Street movie “Follow That Bird” in 1985. She was the college professor who becomes Rodney Dangerfield’s love interest in the hit 1986 comedy “Back to School.”
In addition to her son, she is survived by a daughter, Claire Kellerman Krane. Another daughter, Hannah Krane, died in 2016. Kellerman’s husband, Jonathan Krane, also died in 2016. A previous marriage, to Rick Edelstein, ended in divorce.