Sally Kellerman, actress best known as Major ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan in Robert Altman’s Korean War satire M*A*S*H – obituary

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Sally Kellerman as Hotlips in M.A.S.H.
Sally Kellerman as Hotlips in M.A.S.H.

Sally Kellerman, who has died aged 84, was a hard-working jobbing screen actress for more than a decade before finally finding stardom with her bravura performance as the sultry, alluring head nurse, Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, in the film version of M*A*S*H.

The director, Robert Altman, originally auditioned her for another role eventually played by Jo Ann Pflug in the 1970 movie, a satire on the Korean War at the time American soldiers were dying in Vietnam.

“My agent said that I was reading for the part of Lieutenant Dish,” she said, “so I thought that I had better put on some red lipstick to look more ‘dish-y’.”

Sally Kellerman impressed Altman to the extent that he told her: “I’ll give you the best role in the picture, Hot Lips.” She took away a script but found that the character had just the odd line here and there, and disappeared halfway through.

Feeling that the director was making a fool of her, she later admitted going into a rant with him at their next meeting. “I had spent years playing roles on TV,” she explained. “I was already 31 years old. I didn’t want a career playing hard-bitten drunks in Chanel suits who get slapped by their husbands.”

Altman dealt with Sally Kellerman’s tantrum by casually telling her to “take a chance”. She accepted the role and “Hot Lips” turned out to be a central character – and gained her an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress.

The theme song, with its “suicide is painless” lyric, instantly set the black comedy tone before cinemagoers were introduced to the cynicism of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital’s surgeons led by “Hawkeye” Pierce, “Duke” Forrest and “Trapper John” McIntyre, played by Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerritt and Elliott Gould respectively.

With Donald Sutherland (left) as Hawkeye and Elliott Gould as Trapper John in M.A.S.H. - Everett Collection Inc/Alamy
With Donald Sutherland (left) as Hawkeye and Elliott Gould as Trapper John in M.A.S.H. - Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Major Margaret Houlihan, the highest-ranking female officer and a stickler for regulations, becomes a target for the camp’s pranksters, who set out to humiliate her. When she falls into the arms of another surgeon, Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), the public address system operator, Radar O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff), sneaks a microphone into the room to capture for all the sounds of their passionate lovemaking.

It is the scene where, in a variation from the novel, the nickname of Sally Kellerman’s character is introduced. “Oh, Frank, my lips are hot,” she tells him. “Kiss my hot lips!”

Later, when a $20 bet is placed on whether Hot Lips is a true blonde, the tent sides are pulled off while she is showering. As her naked body is revealed, an audience led by Hawkeye and Trapper John is lined up outside cheering.

In a 2016 interview, Sally Kellerman revealed that Altman’s own high jinks helped to spark her reaction in front of the camera.

Like all the other actors apart from Gary 'Radar' Burghoff, Sally Kellerman did not reprise her film role in the spin-off TV series - LMPC via Getty Images
Like all the other actors apart from Gary 'Radar' Burghoff, Sally Kellerman did not reprise her film role in the spin-off TV series - LMPC via Getty Images

“When I looked up,” she recalled, “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!”

This scene was followed by Hot Lips running to complain to Henry Blake (Roger Bowen), the commanding officer, that this is no hospital but an “insane asylum”, only to find him in bed with a female lieutenant.

Critics who later referred to such sexism and misogyny could point to the fact that neither scene was in the original book.

Like all of the film’s other stars apart from Burghoff, Sally Kellerman did not reprise her role in the subsequent long-running TV series, with Loretta Swit taking over as Hot Lips.

With William Shatner as Captain Kirk in Star Trek in 1966 - CBS via Getty Images
With William Shatner as Captain Kirk in Star Trek in 1966 - CBS via Getty Images

She did continue in other films with Altman, enjoying the freedom he gave actors to interpret and ad-lib scripts, although none attained the same status.

Frustration also came with Neil Simon’s disappointing adaptation of his own stage comedy Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972), where her performance as a waspish vamp luring a restaurant owner into the first of a series of mid-life-crisis affairs was better than the film itself.

Sally Clare Kellerman was born in Long Beach, California, on June 2 1937 to Edith (née Vaughn), a piano teacher, and John Kellerman, a Shell Oil executive.

She sang in musicals while attending Hollywood High School and had ambitions to be a jazz singer. Aged 18, she landed a contract with Verve Records, but she never went beyond making demo records when stage fright meant she could not perform live.

Instead, she switched to acting, taking classes at Los Angeles City College, and made her screen debut in the 1957 film Reform School Girl.

Many one-off television roles followed, including Dr Elizabeth Dehner, the USS Enterprise’s psychiatrist, in an early episode of Star Trek in 1966 (made as the sci-fi series’s second pilot the previous year). In The Boston Strangler (1968) she played an intended victim of Albert DeSalvo (Tony Curtis), but she manages to bite his hand, causing him to flee.

After M*A*S*H, Sally Kellerman worked with Altman again on three films: Brewster McCloud (1970), playing “fairy godmother” to a young recluse (Bud Court) who wants to build wings and fly, and singing Rock-a-Bye Baby as she bathes him; The Player (1992), appearing as herself in a movie about Hollywood; and Prêt-à-Porter (1994), as a magazine editor in a satire on the fashion industry.

With Jack Nicholson in the 1970s - Stills/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
With Jack Nicholson in the 1970s - Stills/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

She also played a real estate agent in Welcome to LA (1976, produced by Altman) and starred alongside Laurence Olivier and Diane Lane in A Little Romance (1979) and Jodie Foster in Foxes (1980).

Sally Kellerman resurrected her singing career with a 1972 album titled Roll With the Feelin’. Then, while struggling to find good film roles, she performed a cabaret act in nightclubs for a while – describing herself as “Billie Holiday without the drugs”.

Returning to acting, she alternated between television and films, and recorded the 2009 album, Sally. Her autobiography, Read My Lips: Stories of a Hollywood Life, was published in 2013.

Sally Kellerman married the future Starsky & Hutch TV director Rick Edelstein in 1970, but the couple divorced five years later. In 1980, she married the film producer Jonathan D Krane, who died in 2016. She is survived by an adopted son and daughter.

Sally Kellerman, born June 2 1937, died February 24 2022

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