Sally Kellerman, the Oscar and Emmy-nominated actor who played Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan in director Robert Altman’s 1970 film M*A*S*H, has died. Kellerman died of heart failure at her home Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, her manager and publicist Alan Eichler said. She was 84.
Kellerman had a career of more than 60 years in film and television. She was a regular in Altman’s films, appearing in 1970’s Brewster McCloud, 1992’s The Player and 1994’s Prêt-à-Porter – but she would always be best known for playing Major Houlihan, a strait-laced, by-the-book army nurse who is tormented by rowdy doctors during the Korean war in the comedy M*A*S*H.
In the film’s key scene – and a 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.
Kellerman said Altman brought out the best in her. “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 Elliott Gould. The movie would be turned into a TV series that lasted 11 seasons, with Loretta Swit in Kellerman’s role.
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 Feelin’. She would sing on the side, and sometimes in roles, throughout her career, releasing her last album, Sally, in 2009.
Kellerman studied acting 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 Cheyenne in 1962 and guest appearances on The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and Bonanza. She also appeared in the original Star Trek pilot as Dr Elizabeth Dehner, a role that won her cult status among fans.
She would work primarily in film in the years following M*A*S*H, including 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’s Foxes with Jodie Foster.
Kellerman worked into her 80s, with several acclaimed television performances in her final years, and in 2014 she was nominated for an Emmy for her recurring role on The Young and the Restless.
Kellerman 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.