M*A*S*H star Sally Kellerman, who played Hot Lips Houlihan in 1970 film, dead at 84

Sally Kellerman, who played Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan in director Robert Altman’s 1970 film M*A*S*H, has died.

Sally died of heart failure at her home in the Woodland Hills section of Los Angeles on Thursday, her manager and publicist Alan Eichler said.

The Oscar and Emmy nominated actor was 84.

Sally had a career of more than 60 years in film and television.

She played a college professor who was returning student Rodney Dangerfield’s love interest in the 1986 comedy Back to School.

And she was a regular in Altman’s films, appearing in 1970’s Brewster McCloud, 1992’s The Player and 1994’s Ready to Wear.

But she would always be best known for playing Major Houlihan, a straitlaced, by-the-book nurse who is tormented by rowdy doctors during the Korean War in the army comedy MASH.

Sally Kellerman in the MASH movie, 1970.
Sally Kellerman in the MASH movie, 1970. Credit: Getty

In the film’s key scene, and its peak moment of misogyny, a tent where Houlihan is showering is pulled open and she is exposed to an audience of cheering men.

“This isn’t a hospital, this is an insane asylum!” she screams at her commanding officer.

She 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.

Sally said Robert Altman brought out the best in her.

Actress Sally Kellerman  in a scene from the movie "M*A*S*H" (Photo by Donaldson Collection/Getty Images)
Actress Sally Kellerman in a scene from the movie “M*A*S*H” (Photo by Donaldson Collection/Getty Images) Credit: Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

“It was a very freeing, positive experience,” she told Dick Cavett in a 1970 TV interview.

“For the first time in my life I took chances, I didn’t suck in my cheeks, or worry about anything.”

The film was nominated for five Academy Awards.

But her best supporting actress was its only acting nod despite a cast that included Duvall, Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould.

The movie would be turned into a TV series that lasted 11 seasons, with Loretta Swit in Sally’s role as “Hot Lips”.

Jazz singer

Sally Clare Kellerman was born in 1937 in Long Beach, California, the daughter of a piano teacher and an oil executive, moving to Los Angeles as a child and attending Hollywood High School.

Her initial interest was in jazz singing, and she was signed to a contract with Verve records at 18.

She opted to pursue acting and didn’t put out any music until 1972, when she released the album Roll With the Feeling.

She would sing on the side, and sometimes in roles, throughout her career, releasing her last album, Sally, in 2007.

Actress Sally Kellerman in 2015
Sally Kellerman, who played Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan in the 1970 film MASH, has died aged 84. Credit: AP

She took an acting class at Los Angeles City College and appeared in a stage production of Look Back in Anger with classmate Jack Nicholson and several other future stars.

She worked mostly in television early in her career, with a lead role in 1962’s Cheyenne and guest appearances on The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and Bonanza.

Her appearance in the original Star Trek pilot as Dr Elizabeth Dehner won her cult status among fans.

She would work primarily in film in the years following M*A*S*H.

Her movie included 1972’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers and 1975’s Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins, both with Alan Arkin, 1973’s Slither with James Caan, 1979’s A Little Romance with Laurence Olivier and 1980’ Foxes with Jodie Foster.

Sally would work into her 80s, with several acclaimed TV performances in her final years.

She starred in the comedy series Decker with Tim Heidecker and played comedian Mark Maron’s mother on his series Maron.

Sally Kellerman at a Star Trek convention in 2016.
Sally Kellerman at a Star Trek convention in 2016. Credit: Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images

“Sally Kellerman was radiant and beautiful and fun and so great to work with,” Maron said on Twitter on Thursday.

“My real mum was very flattered and a bit jealous.

“I’m sad she’s gone.”

In 2014, Sally was nominated for an Emmy for her recurring role on The Young and the Restless.

Sally was married to television producer Rick Edelstein from 1970 to 1972 and to movie producer Jonathan D Krane from 1980 until his death in 2016.

She is survived by her son Jack and daughter Claire.

Leave a Comment