Oscar and Emmy nominated actress Sally Kellerman, who played Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan in the 1970s feature film MASH has died. She is survived by her son Jack and daughter Claire. According to her manager/publicist Alan Eichler, the 84-year-old died from heart failure at her home in the Woodland Hills suburb of Los Angeles. She had been struggling with various complications from dementia for a while (via ABC News).
Sally Kellerman had a career of more than 60 years in film, television, and music. Born in Long Beach, California in 1937, she grew up as the daughter of a piano teacher and oil executive. Her interest in acting began after the family moved to Los Angeles. Kellerman took an acting class at Los Angeles City College and appeared in a production of Look Back in Anger with classmate Jack Nicholson and various other future stars.
Sally Kellerman mostly worked in television during the early years of her career. She landed a lead role in 1962’s Cheyenne and guest appearances on The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and a recurring role in Bonanza. But it was the rising star’s appearance as Dr. Elizabeth Dehner in the original Star Trek pilot that won her a cult following among fans. The multi-talented actress released two albums in 1972 and 2009. She also contributed songs to the soundtracks for various movies.
After starring in the Robert Altman-directed hit MASH, Sally Kellerman appeared in several of his other projects. This included 1970s Brewster McCloud, 1976’s Welcome to L.A, 1992’s The Player, and Prêt-à-Porter in 1994. She also starred in the short-lived anthology television series Gun in 1997. Her catalog of work with other Hollywood creatives is equally impressive and is comprised of movies like Last of the Red Hot Lovers in 1972 and Back to School in 1986.
Despite her extensive catalog of work, Sally Kellerman will best be remembered for her role in the dark war comedy MASH. She effortlessly breathed life into Major Margaret Houlihan, a strait-laced, by-the-book army nurse who is tormented by rowdy doctors during the Korean War. In what has become the movie’s key scene (and gross display of misogyny) a tent where Houlihan is showering is pulled open, leaving her exposed to an audience of cheering men. “This isn’t a hospital, this is an insane asylum!” she screams at her commanding officer.
The character also carries on a torrid affair with the equally uptight Major Frank Burns, played by Robert Duvall, demanding that he kiss her “hot lips” in a moment secretly broadcast over the camp’s public address speakers, earning her the nickname. Speaking about the role with Dick Cavett in 1970, Sally Kellerman described the role as a very freeing, positive experience. “For the first time in my life I took chances, I didn’t suck in my cheeks, or worry about anything,” she said (via The Guardian).
MASH was nominated for five Academy Awards, but Sally Kellerman’s Best Supporting Actress nod was the only acknowledgment the film got for its acting. This was quite an achievement since the cast included Duvall, Donald Sutherland, and Elliott Gould. Due to its popularity, the movie was turned into a series that lasted 11 seasons, with Loretta Swit in Kellerman’s role.