Sally Kellerman

Sally Kellerman
Sally Kellerman

Sally Kellerman was born in 1937 in Long Beach, California.   Studied at the Actor’s Studio in New York and worked extensively on television during the 1960’s.   Her breakthrough role came with the film “Mash” as ‘Hot Lips Houlihan’ in 1970.   Her other films included “Lost Horizon” in 1973, “Brewster McCloud”, “S.O.B.” and “Pret-A-Porter_ in 1994.

Gary Brumburgh’s entry:

Sally Kellerman arrived quite young on the late 1950s film and TV scene with a fresh and distinctively weird, misfit presence. It is this same uniqueness that continues to makes her such an attractively offbeat performer today. The willowy, swan-necked, flaxen-haired actress shot to film comedy fame after toiling nearly a decade and a half in the business, and is still most brazenly remembered for her career-maker — the irreverent hit MASH(1970), for which she received supporting Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. From there she went on to enjoy a number of other hallmark moments as both an actress and a vocalist.

California native Sally Clare Kellerman was born on June 2, 1937, in Long Beach to John Helm Kellerman and Edith Baine (née Vaughn) Kellerman. Raised along with her sister in the San Fernando Valley area, Sally was attracted to the performing arts after seeingMarlon Brando star in the film Viva Zapata! (1952). Attending the renowned Hollywood High School as a teenager, she sang in musical productions while there, including a version of “Meet Me in St. Louis”. Following graduation, she enrolled at Los Angeles City College but left after a year when enticed by acting guru Jeff Corey‘s classes.

Initially inhibited by her height (5’10”), noticeably gawky and slinky frame and wide slash of a mouth, Sally proved difficult to cast at first but finally found herself up for the lead role in Otto Preminger‘s “A”-level film Saint Joan (1957). She lost out in the end, however, when Preminger finally decided to give the role of Joan of Arc to fellow newcomer Jean Seberg. Hardly compensation, 20-year-old Sally made her film debut that same year as a girls’ reformatory inmate who threatens the titular leading lady in the cult “C” juvenile delinquent drama Reform School Girl (1957) starring “good girl” Gloria Castillo and “bad guy” Edd Byrnes of “777 Sunset Strip” teen idol fame, an actor she met and was dating after attending Corey’s workshops. Directed by infamous lowbudget horror film Samuel Z. Arkoff, her secondary part in the film did little in the way of advancing her career. At the same time Sally pursued a singing career, earning a recording contract with Verve Records.

The 1960s was an uneventful but growing period for Kellerman, finding spurts of quirky TV roles in both comedies (“Bachelor Father,” “My Three Sons,” “Dobie Gillis” and “Ozzie and Harriet”) and dramas (“Lock Up,” “Surfside 6,” “Cheyenne,” “The Outer Limits,” “The Rogues,” “Slattery’s People” and the second pilot of “Star Trek”). Sally’s sophomore film was just as campy as the first but her part was even smaller. As an ill-fated victim of theHands of a Stranger (1962), the oft-told horror story of a concert pianist whose transplanted hands become deadly, the film came and went without much fanfare. Studying later at Los Angeles’ Actors’ Studio (West), Sally’s roles increased toward the end of the 1960s with featured parts in more quality filming, including The Third Day(1965), The Boston Strangler (1968) (as a target for killer Tony Curtis) and The April Fools (1969).

Sally’s monumental break came, of course, via director Robert Altman when he hired her for, and she created a dusky-voiced sensation out of, the aggressively irritating character Major Margaret (“Kiss My ‘Hot Lips'”) Houlihan. Her highlighting naked-shower scene in the groundbreaking cinematic comedy MASH (1970) had audiences ultimately laughing and gasping at the same time. Both she and the film were a spectacular success with Sally the sole actor to earn an Oscar nomination for her marvelous work here. She shouldn’t have lost but did to the overly spunky veteran Helen Hayes in Airport (1970).

Becoming extremely good friends with Altman during the movie shoot, Sally went on to film a couple more of the famed director’s more winning and prestigious films of the 1970s, beginning with her wildly crazed “angelic” role in Brewster McCloud (1970), and finishing up brilliantly as a man-hungry real estate agent in his Welcome to L.A. (1976), directed by Alan Rudolph. Sally later regretted not taking the Karen Black singing showcase role in one of Altman’s best-embraced films, Nashville (1975), when originally offered.

Putting out her first album, “Roll With the Feelin'” for Decca Records around this time (1972), Sally continued to be a quirky comedy treasure in both co-star and top supporting roles of the 1970s. She was well cast neurotically opposite Alan Arkin in the Neil Simoncomedy Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972) and again alongside ex-con James Caan as a sexy but loony delight in Slither (1973), a precursor to the Coen Bros.’ darkly comic films. She also co-starred and contributed a song (“Reflections”) to the Burt Bacharach/Hal David soundtrack of the Utopian film Lost Horizon (1973), a musical picture that proved lifeless at the box office.

More impressive work came with the movies A Little Romance (1979) as young Diane Lane‘s quirky mom; Foxes (1980) as Jodie Foster‘s confronting mother; Serial (1980), a California comedy satire starring Martin MullThat’s Life! (1986), a social comedy withJack Lemmon and Julie Andrews; and Back to School (1986), comic Rodney Dangerfield‘s raucous vehicle hit.

Kellerman’s films from the 1980s on have been pretty much a mixed bag. While some, such as the low-grade Moving Violations (1985), Meatballs III: Summer Job (1986),Doppelganger (1993) Live Virgin (1999) and Women of the Night (2001) have been completely unworthy of her talents, her presence in others have been, at the very least, catchy such as her Natasha Fatale opposite Dave Thomas‘ Boris Badenov in Boris and Natasha (1992); director Percy Adlon‘s inventive Younger and Younger (1993), which reunited her with MASH co-star Donald Sutherland, and in Robert Altman‘s rather disjointed, ill-received all-star effort Prêt-à-Porter (1994) in which she plays a fashion magazine editor.

When her quality film output faltered in later years, Sally lent a fine focus back to her singing career and made a musical dent as a deep-voiced blues and jazz artist. She started hitting the Los Angeles and New York club circuits with solo acts. In 2009, Kellerman released her first album since “Roll With The Feelin'” simply titled “Sally,” a jazz and blues-fused album. Along those same lines, Sally played a nightclub singer in the comedy Limit Up (1989) and later co-starred in the movie Night Club (2011) where friends and residents start a club in a retirement home. Sally’s seductively throaty voice has also put her in good standing as a voice-over artist of commercials, feature films and TV.

Divorced in the 1970s from TV writer/director Rick Edelstein, Sally later married Jonathan D. Krane. She has three adopted children.

– IMDb Mini Biography By: Gary Brumburgh /


Telegraph obituary in Feb 2022:

Sally Kellerman, actress best known as Major ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan in Robert Altman’s Korean War satire M*A*S*H – obituary

She took her most famous part despite a rant at the director and went on to be nominated for an Oscar

ByTelegraph Obituaries25 February 2022 • 3:34pm

Sally Kellerman as Hotlips in M.A.S.H.
Sally Kellerman as Hotlips in M.A.S.H.

Sally Kellerman, who has died aged 84, was a hard-working jobbing screen actress for more than a decade before finally finding stardom with her bravura performance as the sultry, alluring head nurse, Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, in the film version of M*A*S*H.

The director, Robert Altman, originally auditioned her for another role eventually played by Jo Ann Pflug in the 1970 movie, a satire on the Korean War at the time American soldiers were dying in Vietnam.

“My agent said that I was reading for the part of Lieutenant Dish,” she said, “so I thought that I had better put on some red lipstick to look more ‘dish-y’.”

Sally Kellerman impressed Altman to the extent that he told her: “I’ll give you the best role in the picture, Hot Lips.” She took away a script but found that the character had just the odd line here and there, and disappeared halfway through.

Feeling that the director was making a fool of her, she later admitted going into a rant with him at their next meeting. “I had spent years playing roles on TV,” she explained. “I was already 31 years old. I didn’t want a career playing hard-bitten drunks in Chanel suits who get slapped by their husbands.”

Altman dealt with Sally Kellerman’s tantrum by casually telling her to “take a chance”. She accepted the role and “Hot Lips” turned out to be a central character – and gained her an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress.

The theme song, with its “suicide is painless” lyric, instantly set the black comedy tone before cinemagoers were introduced to the cynicism of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital’s surgeons led by “Hawkeye” Pierce, “Duke” Forrest and “Trapper John” McIntyre, played by Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerritt and Elliott Gould respectively.

With Donald Sutherland (left) as Hawkeye and Elliott Gould as Trapper John in M.A.S.H.
With Donald Sutherland (left) as Hawkeye and Elliott Gould as Trapper John in M.A.S.H. CREDIT: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Major Margaret Houlihan, the highest-ranking female officer and a stickler for regulations, becomes a target for the camp’s pranksters, who set out to humiliate her. When she falls into the arms of another surgeon, Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), the public address system operator, Radar O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff), sneaks a microphone into the room to capture for all the sounds of their passionate lovemaking.

It is the scene where, in a variation from the novel, the nickname of Sally Kellerman’s character is introduced. “Oh, Frank, my lips are hot,” she tells him. “Kiss my hot lips!”

Later, when a $20 bet is placed on whether Hot Lips is a true blonde, the tent sides are pulled off while she is showering. As her naked body is revealed, an audience led by Hawkeye and Trapper John is lined up outside cheering.

In a 2016 interview, Sally Kellerman revealed that Altman’s own high jinks helped to spark her reaction in front of the camera. 

“When I looked up,” she recalled, “there was Gary Burghoff stark naked standing in front of me. 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!”

This scene was followed by Hot Lips running to complain to Henry Blake (Roger Bowen), the commanding officer, that this is no hospital but an “insane asylum”, only to find him in bed with a female lieutenant.

Critics who later referred to such sexism and misogyny could point to the fact that neither scene was in the original book.

Like all of the film’s other stars apart from Burghoff, Sally Kellerman did not reprise her role in the subsequent long-running TV series, with Loretta Swit taking over as Hot Lips.

With William Shatner as Captain Kirk in Star Trek in 1966
With William Shatner as Captain Kirk in Star Trek in 1966 CREDIT: CBS via Getty Images

She did continue in other films with Altman, enjoying the freedom he gave actors to interpret and ad-lib scripts, although none attained the same status.

Frustration also came with Neil Simon’s disappointing adaptation of his own stage comedy Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972), where her performance as a waspish vamp luring a restaurant owner into the first of a series of mid-life-crisis affairs was better than the film itself.

Sally Clare Kellerman was born in Long Beach, California, on June 2 1937 to Edith (née Vaughn), a piano teacher, and John Kellerman, a Shell Oil executive.

She sang in musicals while attending Hollywood High School and had ambitions to be a jazz singer. Aged 18, she landed a contract with Verve Records, but she never went beyond making demo records when stage fright meant she could not perform live.

Instead, she switched to acting, taking classes at Los Angeles City College, and made her screen debut in the 1957 film Reform School Girl.

Many one-off television roles followed, including Dr Elizabeth Dehner, the USS Enterprise’s psychiatrist, in an early episode of Star Trek in 1966 (made as the sci-fi series’s second pilot the previous year). In The Boston Strangler (1968) she played an intended victim of Albert DeSalvo (Tony Curtis), but she manages to bite his hand, causing him to flee.

After M*A*S*H, Sally Kellerman worked with Altman again on three films: Brewster McCloud (1970), playing “fairy godmother” to a young recluse (Bud Court) who wants to build wings and fly, and singing Rock-a-Bye Baby as she bathes him; The Player (1992), appearing as herself in a movie about Hollywood; and Prêt-à-Porter (1994), as a magazine editor in a satire on the fashion industry.

With Jack Nicholson in the 1970s
With Jack Nicholson in the 1970s CREDIT: Stills/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

She also played a real estate agent in Welcome to LA (1976, produced by Altman) and starred alongside Laurence Olivier and Diane Lane in A Little Romance (1979) and Jodie Foster in Foxes (1980).

Sally Kellerman resurrected her singing career with a 1972 album titled Roll With the Feelin’. Then, while struggling to find good film roles, she performed a cabaret act in nightclubs for a while – describing herself as “Billie Holiday without the drugs”.

Returning to acting, she alternated between television and films, and recorded the 2009 album, Sally. Her autobiography, Read My Lips: Stories of a Hollywood Life, was published in 2013.

Sally Kellerman married the future Starsky & Hutch TV director Rick Edelstein in 1970, but the couple divorced five years later. In 1980, she married the film producer Jonathan D Krane, who died in 2016. She is survived by an adopted son and daughter.

Sally Kellerman, born June 2 1937, died February 24 2022

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