Sally Kellerman, the husky-voiced actress best known for playing US Army Maj. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, has died. She died at the age of 84.
Kellerman, who also sang and had a song written for her by Grand Funk Railroad, died Thursday morning at an assisted living home in Woodland Hills following a battle with dementia, according to her son, Jack Krane.
Kellerman, a native of California, starred as Dr. Elizabeth Dehner, a human Starfleet officer aboard the USS Enterprise, in the third Star Trek episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”
“I’m sorry,” Dehner says to Captain Kirk (William Shatner) as she sacrifices her life. You can’t imagine what it’s like to… be on the verge of becoming a god.
Kellerman also starred as Diane Turner, a free-spirited college literature professor who is the love interest of Rodney Dangerfield’s abrasive rags-to-riches businessman Thornton Melon, in the 1986 comedy Back to School.
“This is my one brag in life: the director [Alan Metter] claimed that I contributed to making Rodney human and credible in a relationship.”
Because all I had to do was love him and be honest about it,” Kellerman remarked on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast in 2016. (On Maron’s IFC sitcom, she played his eccentric mother.)
When fans saw Kellerman in public, they would either exclaim, “Hey, Hot Lips!” or quote a legendary Dangerfield line from Back to School: “Call me later when you don’t have any class.”
When Kellerman won the role of the bookish Houlihan in M*A*S*H, an adaptation of Richard Hooker’s 1968 novel about Army surgeons saving lives during the Korean War, she had already guest-starred on a number of 1960s TV shows, including The Outer Limits, 12 O’Clock High, Ben Casey, That Girl, and Mannix.
One of her most well-known incidents in the film occurred when she was humiliatingly pranked in the shower. Altman designed distractions for the shot because Kellerman had never been nude onscreen before, she claimed.
In 2016, she recounted, “When I looked up, there was [actor] Gary Burghoff absolutely naked standing in front of me.” “On the next take, [Altman] had Tamara Horrocks, the more well-endowed nurse, without her shirt on….” As a result, I credit my Academy Award nomination to those who made my mouth hang open.
Kellerman remarked of her character’s humiliation, “I adored Bob, but he was a real male chauvinist, maybe the worst.” I’m joking. Kind kinda joking.
But I believe Hot Lips was spared by such [torment]. After that, she matured. She’d been so tense, so inflexible, with no sense of humour — and then everything happened, and she started enjoying a genuine life.”
“You’re going to get nominated for an Oscar for this one, Sally,” Altman told Kellerman in a 2013 interview as the M*A*S*H crew was watching the dailies. Helen Hayes of Airport, the sentimental favourite that year, defeated her.
She worked with Altman on the films Brewster McCloud (1970), The Player (1992), and Pret-a-Porter (1994), as well as an episode of Gun, an ABC anthology series that he executive produced in 1997.
Kellerman, on the other hand, squandered another chance to work with the legendary director.
“Bob called me one day at home,” she claimed in her 2013 biography, Read My Lips: Stories of a Hollywood Life, after an ill-fated encounter with Alan Arkin in the Neil Simon comedy Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972), directed by Gene Saks.
“‘Sally, do you want to be in my next picture?’ he inquired. I answered, ‘Only if it’s a good portion.’
“I got a call from him, and he hung up on me.” Bob was just as headstrong and egotistical as I was at the time, but the unfortunate part is that I missed out on working with someone I adored, someone who made acting enjoyable and easy while also trusting his cast.
For Bob Altman, stars would queue up to labour for nothing.”
“Oh, the Altman film I turned down?” she continued. Nashville. I would have been able to sing in that scene. “Wrong decision.”
Sally Claire Kellerman was born in Long Beach, California, on June 2, 1937. Her mother was a piano instructor, while her father was a Shell Oil executive. She added, “I came out of the womb singing and performing.”
Kellerman starred in a production of Meet Me in St. Louis while attending Hollywood High School and sent a tape to jazz producer Norman Granz. He offered her a recording contract at Verve, but she declined at the age of 18.
“At the time, I was young and afraid,” she explained. “I didn’t have a lot of self-esteem, and I’d already started acting classes.”
This seminar, taught by Jeff Corey, offered me the opportunity to mature.” (Jack Nicholson, James Coburn, and Robert Blake were among his classmates.)
Kellerman made her film debut in the Samuel Z. Arkoff criminal thriller Reform School Girl in 1957, and went on to star in a number of television shows and plays, including The Marriage Go-Round and Call Me by My Rightful Name.
She appeared in a 1966 stage adaptation of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, starring Richard Chamberlain and Mary Tyler Moore, but the production was cancelled in previews before it reached Broadway because producer David Merrick did not want to “subject the drama critics and the public to an excruciatingly boring evening.”
Nonetheless, her previous experience gave her confidence when she auditioned for Altman.
“I was ready to take any kind of risk before M*A*S*H,” Kellerman remarked. “I went out for the Lieutenant Dish portion, which was the larger of the two.”
But I was wearing lipstick, and producer Ingo Preminger was repeating in his German accent, ‘Hot Lips!’ while I was talking a mile a minute… ‘Hot Lips,’ shouted [Altman] as well.”
Of course, the picture and Hooker’s novel inspired the CBS series M*A*S*H, which aired from 1972 to 1983.
Almost all of the characters from the film were recast for television, notably Hot Lips, who was played by Loretta Swit, who won two Emmys and was nominated for 10 of the show’s 11 seasons. (Walter “Radar” O’Reilly was played by Burghoff again.)