Sally Kellerman had been appearing films and television for over a decade and had dozens of credits to her name when she auditioned for the role of the sexy Lieutenant Dish in the original film version of M*A*S*H.
She was none too pleased when director Robert Altman offered her instead the role of Major “Hot Lips” Houlihan, a tiny part and a figure of ridicule, in his hard-edged comedy set in a mobile hospital camp during the Korean War. Altman made out that the role of Hot Lips was a lot bigger than it was. It was only after the audition when she looked through the script properly that Kellerman realised with mounting anger just how small the role was. “Fourteen years in Hollywood and my ‘best role’ is the nine-line part of a soldier named Hot Lips,” she complained to her agent.
She went to see Altman again and told him what she thought of him and the role. “I arrived in a huff. I hated him for thinking he could fool me and I was going to tell him what I thought. I had spent years playing roles on TV. I was 31 years old and I didn’t want a career playing hard-bitten drunks in Chanel suits who get slapped by their husbands. I was capable of so much more than a few lines. ‘So why can’t she do this? And why can’t she do that?’ I was having a tantrum in his office and when I finally came up for air, Bob said, simply, ‘Why couldn’t she?’ ”
Altman was famous for the latitude he allowed his actors in improvising and between them he and Kellerman expanded the role of the sexually repressed nurse into one of the film’s major roles. In one scene Hot Lips is having sex with the hypocritical, bible-thumping doctor played by Robert Duvall and their activity is played over the camp’s PA system. Everyone hears her pleading “Kiss my hot lips”, prompting her nickname.
In another she is taking a shower and the characters played by Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould assemble doctors and nurses to watch the moment her shower curtain is pulled away and she is fully exposed to the camp, much to her horror.
The film was a huge hit and inspired a TV series so popular it lasted longer than the Korean War itself. Loretta Swit took over the role of Hot Lips, while Kellerman went on to pursue her film career, repeatedly working with Altman. None of her subsequent roles matched the impact of Hot Lips. “I’ve made 63 movies, and starred in about 20, but M*A*S*H seems to be the only one that people remember,” she said.
M*A*S*H presented a depiction of the human cost of war, so graphic it received an adults-only X certificate, and it tapped into anti-establishment and anti-war sentiments. It has been hailed as one of the greatest comedies of all time and Kellerman got an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress.
More recently, however, the film has come under attack as misogynist. “It is a seminal film of New Hollywood, and it bears all the hallmarks of its era: a strong anti-establishment sentiment, the foregrounding of morally ambiguous protagonists, and, unfortunately, a deep and unexamined misogyny,” film critic Noah Gittell wrote in the Guardian in 2020.
“The boys decide to settle a bet as to whether she is a natural blonde by exposing her in the shower tent for the entire base… It was intended as a prank, but today, after the revelations of the #MeToo movement, it reads more like harassment or assault.” Kellerman insisted the shower scene was liberating both for her as an actress and for the character. “She’d been so uptight, so rigid, no sense of humour and after that she started having a real life,” she said.
Sally Clare Kellerman was born in 1937 in Long Beach, California. Her father was an oil company executive, her mother a piano teacher. She wanted to perform from an early age, was passionate about jazz and landed a contract with Verve Records at 18, though she suffered from stage fright and her singing career stalled. She studied acting in classes that included Jack Nicholson and worked as a waitress to pay her tuition.
She made her screen debut in a tiny role in a film called Reform School Girl in 1957. Tall and gangly, she went on to appear in such legendary series as The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Star Trek and Bonanza. And she played a woman who survives an attack in the 1968 movie The Boston Strangler, with Tony Curtis cast against type as the killer.
After M*A*S*H Kellerman was reunited with Altman on Brewster McCloud. Critic John Simon wrote, "Brewster McCloud is a pretentious, disorganised, modishly iconoclastic movie which, in the manner of its Icarus-like hero, aspires to fly high and merely drops dead.” The film, about a man who wants to fly and makes himself a pair of wings, was not a major hit at the time. It was one of five Altman films in which Kellerman appeared over the years.
She starred opposite Alan Arkin in the comedy Last of the Red Hot Lovers and with Peter Finch, Liv Ullmann and John Gielgud in the 1973 musical version of Lost Horizon, with songs by Bacharach and David. But despite its impressive credentials it flopped at the box office.
Kellerman worked steadily until a few years ago, with several recurring roles on US television and lending her husky tones to well-paid commercials for products as varied as Mercedes-Benz cars, cosmetics and salad dressing.
Her first marriage, to TV producer Rick Edelstein, barely lasted a year and ended in divorce. Her second husband, producer Jonathan Krane, whom she wed in 1980, died in 2016.
She is survived by two adopted children, Jack Krane and Claire Kellerman, the daughter of her sister Diana, who became estranged from the family after coming out as gay. Kellerman also adopted Jack’s twin sister Hannah, who died of a drug overdose in 2016.
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