Sally Kellerman was the actor and singer best known for starring as Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, the head army nurse, in the 1970 hit movie M*A*S*H.
A mobile army surgical hospital was an unlikely background for such a popular comedy film. Directed by Robert Altman and based on a book by Richard Hooker, the story was set in a field hospital during the Korean War and firmly established Kellerman’s star status.
Kellerman was born in Long Beach, California, in 1937. Her mother was a piano teacher and her father was in the oil industry. She recalled her early years of education: “I went to Hollywood High School. It was the era of bobby socks and ponytails, high heels and make-up. I was a bad girl. That meant I smoked, knew how to swear, and sometimes I drank a beer. I was so dumb I had to be taught to swear. They called me Miss Innocent.”
She had begun her career in television, taking roles in sci-fi series such as The Twilight Zone (1963), The Outer Limits (1963-4) and in a pilot for Star Trek (1966), where she played the psychiatrist Dr Elizabeth Dehner. Voice-over work for television advertising included slots for Revlon and Mercedes-Benz.
But it was her role in M*A*S*H that made Kellerman’s career. With its catchy theme tune (”Suicide Is Painless”) and endearing cast – including Donald Sutherland as “Hawkeye” Pierce – the film performed exceptionally well at the box office in its year of release, making more than $80m on a production budget of $3.5m.
Kellerman had been somewhat ambivalent about taking the role, especially because of a scene when the sides of a flimsy tent are lifted as a prank, to reveal her taking a shower. “There was a lot of chauvinism,” she said of the film, and recalled in a later interview, “When I looked up, 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 when I hit the deck.”
The M*A*S*H film spawned a television adaptation, starting as a slow burner but soon becoming popular with audiences on the small screen and running for 11 series over the next decade. For the TV version, the Margaret Houlihan role was played by Loretta Swit.
Kellerman was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe as Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance in M*A*S*H. “After being nominated for an Oscar for M*A*S*H I thought, well, that’s set. My career would take care of itself,” she recalled. Kellerman would go on to have parts in a number of Altman’s other films, including Brewster McCloud (1970) and Welcome to LA (1976).
Alongside her acting career, Kellerman had always maintained a successful sideline as a singer, having wanted to be in the music business since leaving school: “I thought I was a real good singer, but it was less scary to get into acting because you could do that with somebody. Singing you had to do by yourself.”
She released her first album, Roll with the Feelin’, with Decca in 1972 and her most recent, Sally, in 2009. A particularly sparkling performance by Kellerman from the early Seventies can be heard on the single Triad (1973), arranged and produced by Barry Manilow.
Published in 2013, her memoir, Read My Lips: Stories of a Hollywood Life, provides a fascinating account of her career in and around Tinseltown. Reflecting on her six decades in entertainment for a 2018 interview, she mused: “It hasn’t been smooth or delightful every minute. There were lean years and rough years, but it’s been exciting and good and I’m thrilled to be an actress and a singer and to have spent my life this way.”
Kellerman married Rick Edelstein, a television producer, in 1970 and divorced two years later. With her second husband, Jonathan D Krane, she adopted two children, a son Jack and a daughter Hannah, who tragically died aged 27. Krane died in 2016. She had also adopted her niece, Claire Kellerman.
Sally Kellerman, actor, born 2 June 1937, died 24 February 2022