Oscar Actors: Kellerman, Sally–Oscar Nominee, Hot Lips Houlihan in M*A*S*H, Dies at 84

Sally Kellerman: Oscar Nominee, Hot Lips Houlihan in M*A*S*H, dies at 84

Sally Kellerman, who passed today at the age of 84, had a long career as a film, stage, and TV actress, and also as cabaret singer.

Yet she is one of those actors who will always be associated with one iconic role, as U.S. Army Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan in Robert Altman’s 1970 award-winning blockbuster, M*A*S*H, for which she garnered a Golden Globe (and Oscar) nomination.

One of her more famous scenes in the movie came when she is embarrassingly pranked in the shower. Kellerman had never been nude onscreen, so Altman, known for his clever (often nasty) technique to manipulate actors, made distractions for the shot.

“When I looked up, there was actor Gary Burghoff stark naked standing in front of me,” she recalled in 2016. “The next take, Altman had Tamara Horrocks — she was the more amply endowed nurse — without her shirt on. … So I attribute my Academy Award nomination to the people who made my mouth hang open.”

Altman was enamored of the Kellerman’s cool demeanor and husky voice also proceeded to cast her in other features, Brewster McCloud (1970), The Player (1992), Pret-a-Porter (1994).

Years later, recalling the humiliation her character endured, Kellerman said: “I loved Bob (Altman), but he was a real male chauvinist, probably the worst. I’m sort of kidding. But I think that torment really saved Hot Lips. She grew up after that. She’d been so uptight, so rigid, no sense of humor — and after all that went down, she started having a really good time, a real life.”

The intimate association between actor and character was both a curse and a blessing. Kellerman noted that when fans encountered her in public, they would yell, “Hey, Hot Lips!” and, depending on her mood at that moment, she would either react with a big smile or just shrugged them off.

Even so, the appeal of her public screen image was not lost on her and she named her 2013 memoir, Read My Lips: Stories of a Hollywood Life.

In a 2013 interview, Kellerman remembered that when the M*A*S*H crew was watching the dailies, Altman told her, “You’re going to get nominated for an Oscar for this one, Sally.” She wound up losing to the sentimental favorite that year, vet actress Helen Hayes in the disaster adventure movie, Airport.

Her second best-known role was in the 1986 smash comedy, Back to School, opposite Rodney Dangerfield. In that film, she rendered a memorable performance as the free-spirited college literature professor Diane Turner, the love interest of Dangerfield’s obnoxious rags-to-riches businessman, Thornton Melon. Fans would recite a Dangerfield line that became a classic: “Call me sometime when you got no class.”

“This is my one brag in life: The director Alan Metter said he felt that I helped make Rodney human, believable in a relationship. Because I just had to love him and be sincere about it.”

Sally Claire Kellerman was born on June 2, 1937, in Long Beach, California. Her mother was a piano teacher and her father an executive for Shell Oil.

While attending Hollywood High School, Kellerman starred in a production of Meet Me in St. Louis. She then submitted a demo to jazz impresario Norman Granz, and he offered her a recording contract at Verve, but, being 18 and insecure, she turned it down.

Instead, she decided to take acting classes, taught by Jeff Corey, claiming as classmates Jack Nicholson, James Coburn and Robert Blake. All of whom would go on to cultivate impressive Hollywood resumes.

In 1957, Kellerman made her film debut in the Samuel Z. Arkoff crime drama Reform School Girl, then appeared regularly on television and in several plays, including The Marriage Go-Round and Call Me by My Rightful Name.

She had a role in a 1966 stage production of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, starring Richard Chamberlain and Mary Tyler Moore, but the show closed in previews before making it to Broadway, due to poor reaction.

Still, all of her experience to that point emboldened her as she auditioned for Altman. “Before M*A*S*H, I was ready to take any kind of chance,” Kellerman said. “I went out for the Lieutenant Dish part, which was bigger. But I happened to be wearing lipstick, and while I was talking a mile a minute, producer Ingo Preminger (son of director Otto Preminger) kept muttering in his German accent, ‘Hot Lips!’ … Altman then yelled ‘Hot Lips’ too.”

The film and Richard Hooker’s 1968 novel also inspired the CBS series M*A*S*H, which ran from 1972-1983. Nearly all of the characters from the movie were recast, including Hot Lips, portrayed on TV by Loretta Swit, who won two Emmys and was nominated for her work multiple times.

All along producers and directors have noticed that she was particularly adept at delivering smart, campy one-liners, in or out of context. Kellerman had a good role in the third Star Trek episode, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” in which she portrayed Dr. Elizabeth Dehner, a human Starfleet officer aboard the USS Enterprise. When Dehner sacrifices her life, her dying words to Capt. Kirk William Shatner are, “I’m sorry, you can’t know what it’s like to be almost a god.”

Kellerman’s film résumé included The Boston Strangler (1968), as one Tony Curtis’ victims, The April Fools (1969), Slither (1973) opposite James Caan, the Charles Jarrott-directed Lost Horizon (1973), Welcome to L.A. (1976) with Harvey Keitel and Sissy Spacek, The Big Bus (1976), Foxes (1980), Blake Edwards’ That’s Life! (1986), All’s Fair (1989) and Boynton Beach Club (2005).

In the 1970s, Kellerman pursued a singing career and in 1972 released her first album, ‘Roll With the Feelin.’ Around that time, she dated Grand Funk Railroad singer-guitarist Mark Farner, who wrote the 1976 pop song “Sally” about her. Her second album, which she named Sally, was released in 2009.

Kellerman wed writer-director Rick Edelstein (Starsky & Hutch) in December 1970, but the marriage was troubled from the start, and they divorced in 1972. In 1980, she married the producer Jonathan D. Krane (Look Who’s Talking), and they adopted twins, Jack and Hannah, who died in 2016.

In 2015, on the CBS soap opera The Young and the Restless, she played Constance Bingham, an elderly woman confined to wheelchair, a role that earned her a Daytime Emmy nomination.