Sally Kellerman, a force who originated the role of Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H movie and also starred in the 80s classic Back To School, died in Woodland Hills, CA yesterday. She was 84.
The news of Sally Kellerman’s death brought on a giant wave of sadness but became even sadder after hearing that she was suffering from dementia and died from dementia complications at an assisted-living facility. The sad news of her death was confirmed by her publicist Alan Eichler.
Sally Kellerman was born in Long Beach, CA on June 2, 1937. She grew up in Southern California and graduated from Hollywood High. Since Sally was born with the kind of smoky voice that tickled ears in the right way, she recorded a demo and sent it to Verve Records. Verve signed Sally, but she wasn’t sure if that recording artist life was for her so she changed her mind and backed out. Instead, Sally took acting classes, and her 60-year career in the business that is show officially started in 1957 when she appeared in the movie Reform School Girl. Throughout the 1960s, Sally built her resume by starring in episodes of the TV shows Cheyenne, The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, Bonanza, and the third episode of Star Trek. And her big break came when she got the role of Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970). Sally originally wanted the bigger role of Lieutenant Maria “Dish” Schneider (which went to Jo Ann Pflug), but she wore lipstick during her audition and talked a mile a minute, so producers looked at her and immediately saw Hot Lips. During an interview with NJ.com to promote her 2013 memoir Read My Lips: Stories of a Hollywood Life, Sally was asked about the sexist treatment of Hot Lips in the movie:
Q: “MASH,” of course was your biggest hit, and Robert Altman’s too. But I can’t watch it now without feeling sorry for Hot Lips. We’re supposed to laugh, but her humiliation is kind of painful, and a little sexist.
A: Well, there was a lot of chauvinism there, sure. I loved Bob but he was a real male chauvinist, probably the worst. I’m kidding. Sort of kidding. But I think that (humiliation) 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.
Playing Hot Lips got Sally an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, thanks to scenes of scenes like this one:
Loretta Swit went on to play Hot Lips in the M*A*S*H TV series. Altman offered Sally a role in Nashville but she turned him down because she says she just wasn’t in the right place for it at the time. But Sally was in Altman’s Brewster McCloud (1970), The Player (1992), and one of my favorites, Prêt-à-Porter (1994), where she wonderfully played tall drink of sultry charisma Sissy Wannamaker of Harper’s Bazaar.
Beyond working with Altman, Sally was also in Last of the Red Hot Lovers, Lost Horizon, Foxes, You Can’t Hurry Love, Night Club, Slither, Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins, The Big Bus, Welcome to L.A., Evening Shade, Hotel, Diagnosis Murder, Columbo, 90210, Difficult People, Workaholics, Maron, On Cinema, Comedy Bang! Bang!, and Young and the Restless, which got her a Daytime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Special Guest Performer in a Drama Series in 2015. And 80s me would slap me down if I didn’t mention Sally Kellerman’s brilliant performance in 1986’s Back To School with Rodney Dangerfield, Robert Downey Jr., Sam Kinison, Ned Beatty, Edie McClurg, Adrienne Barbeau, Oingo Boingo, and Kurt Vonnegut as himself.
Sally may not have been ready for a recording career in her teens, but she did record two albums: Roll with the Feelin’ (1972) and Sally (2009). And in 1966, Sally played Mag Wildwood, as well as understudying the role of Holly Golightly (played by Mary Tyler Moore), in the very, very shorted live Breakfast At Tiffany’s musical.
Sally also brought her legendary voice and massive presence to commercials for Revlon, Mercedes-Benz, and Hidden Valley Ranch. Sally narrated a series of Hidden Valley Ranch commercials in the 1980s. Leave it to Sally Kellerman to douse Hidden Valley Ranch commercials with a heavy serving of sultry elegance:
Sally was married to Rick Edelstein from 1970 to 1972, and screenwriter Jonathan D. Krane from 1980 until his death in 2016. Sally had three children: Claire Kellerman Krane, Jack Krane, and Hannah Krane who also died in 2016.
Rest in peace, Sally Kellerman.
Pic: Fernando Allende/startraksphoto.com