The women in M*A*S*H (1970), Robert Altman’s loud comedy about a mobile military hospital during the Korean War, tend to be roughed up. Actress Sally Kellerman, who died at the age of 84, still knew how to make the most of a thankless role. She received an Oscar nomination for playing Major Margaret Houlihan, better known by the nickname “Hot Lips”.
In one scene, she is taking a shower in a tent when the canvas is ripped off, exposing her to loud applause from her colleagues who have lined up their chairs to watch. “The first take, Sally hit the ground so fast we couldn’t tell what she was doing,” the director said. For the second, he and actor Gary Burghoff stood “on either side of the camera with our pants down, so when the tent went up she saw us both standing naked. That’s why she froze before she fell and how we got the hit we wanted.
In Kellerman’s recollection, there was a third take with another naked off-camera colleague. “[Altman] had Tamara Horrocks, she was the most amply endowed nurse, without her shirt,” she said. “So I attribute my Oscar nomination to the people who gasped at me when I hit the bridge.”
Kellerman admitted that “there was a lot of chauvinism” in the image, although she thought the humiliation served an important function for her character. “She grew up after that,” she says. “She had been so stuck up, so rigid, with no sense of humor – and after everything that happened, she started having a really good time, a real life.” She also considered the film a personal turning point. “For the first time in my life, I took risks.”
In the director’s next film, the quirky comedy Brewster McCloud (also from 1970), Kellerman played the mysterious Louise, who may be a reincarnated angel or bird. Although she turned down a role in Altman’s Nashville (1975), she worked with him again on Alan Rudolph’s Welcome to LA (1976), which he produced, and is one of many seen as themselves in his Hollywood satire The Player (1992). She appeared as a magazine editor, was reportedly modeled on Liz Tilberis of Harper’s Bazaar, in Altman’s fashion industry comedy Ready to Wear (1994), and starred in an episode from the series Gun (1997), which he directed.
Kellerman was born in Long Beach, California to John Helm Kellerman, an oil executive, and Edith, a piano teacher. She was educated at Hollywood High School, where her talent for singing and acting first emerged. At 18, she was offered a contract as a singer with the jazz label Verve Records. She later claimed that stage fright ended her acting hopes, but also that she turned down the contract in favor of pursuing her acting career, having recently started taking lessons alongside Jack Nicholson. .
It was not until 1972 that she recorded her first album, Roll with the Feelin’. Her second, Sally, was released in 2009.
While working as a waitress, she started getting small roles in movies, television, and theater. She had a line of dialogue in Reform School Girl (1957), her screen debut, as well as the horror film Hands of a Stranger (1962). She appeared in television series including The Outer Limits, in which a role was specially written for her by Joseph Stefano, the screenwriter of Psycho (1960), who had seen her in a play. She wore silver contact lenses as a psychiatrist who develops godlike powers in a 1966 episode of Star Trek. In The Boston Strangler (1968), she narrowly escapes the murder of the main character, played by Tony Curtis.
She was in the 1966 stage version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, starring Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain. Plagued by backstage issues, the show ended after only four previews, never having officially opened. She also starred in the musical remake of Frank Capra’s 1937 melodrama Lost Horizon (1973), another notorious flop; its author, future activist Larry Kramer, described it as “the one thing I’ve done in my life that I truly regret”.
She turned down most movie offers after M*A*S*H to focus on touring as a musician. Exceptions included the Neil Simon adaptation Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972) and the crime film Slither (1973). At the end of that decade, she played the troubled mother of a teenage girl twice – first with Diane Lane in A Little Romance (1979) and then Jodie Foster in Foxes (1980).
Part of his talent was to bring charm and effervescence where there had been none before, never more so than in turn as a literature teacher in Back to School (1986), a vehicle for the coarse, deep-voiced comedian Rodney Dangerfield. “The director said he thought I helped make Rodney human, believable in a relationship,” she said. “Because I just had to love it and be sincere about it.”
Other films included Blake Edwards’ comedy-drama That’s Life (also 1986), starring Jack Lemmon and Julie Andrews, and Henry Jaglom’s mockumentary Someone to Love (1987), which featured Orson’s final appearance Welles. Between 2013 and 2016, she played the mother of comic Marc Maron in his fictionalized television series Maron.
Kellerman was candid about the fact that he failed to capitalize on the success of M*A*S*H. “I started believing my own publicity,” she said. “I was this overweight girl, not very confident, and now everyone was telling me I was the best… But instead I thought, ‘OK, great, I guess I have this acting stuff now. Time to work on my music’… When it comes to building a career, I’ve never been the sharpest tool in the shed.
In 2013, she released her memoir, Read My Lips: Stories of a Hollywood Life.
She is survived by son Jack, from her second marriage, to producer and manager Jonathan Krane, and by one daughter, Claire. Krane and Jack’s twin sister Hannah died in unrelated incidents three months apart in 2016. Her first marriage, to Rick Edelstein, ended in divorce in 1972.