Sally Kellerman, the Oscar- and Emmy-nominated actress who played Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan in Robert Altman’s 1970 film M*A*S*H, has died. Kellerman died of heart failure at her home in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, her manager and publicist Alan Eichler said. She was 84.
Kellerman has a career in film and television spanning more than 60 years. A regular in Altman’s films, she appeared in 1970s Brewster McCloud, 1992’s The Player and 1994’s Prêt-à-Porter – but she was always best known for playing Major Houlihan, a tight-laced, Strictly laced army nurse tormented by boorish doctors during the Korean War in the comedy M*A*S*H.
In the film’s pivotal scene – and a climax of misogyny – a tent where Houlihan is showering is ripped open and she is exposed to an audience of cheering men. “This is not a hospital, this is an insane asylum!” She yells at her commander. She has a torrid affair with the equally uptight Major Frank Burns, played by Robert Duvall, and demands that they kiss her “hot lips” in a moment secretly broadcast over the camp’s public address system, earning her the nickname.
Kellerman said Altman brought out the best in her. “It was a very liberating, positive experience,” she told Dick Cavett in a 1970 television interview. “For the first time in my life I took risks, I didn’t hide my cheeks or worry about anything.” The film was nominated for five Oscars, but her best supporting actress was the only acting credit, despite a cast that included Duvall, Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould belonged. The film was slated to be adapted into a television series that lasted 11 seasons, with Loretta Swit in Kellerman’s role.
Born in Long Beach, California in 1937 to a piano teacher and an oil executive, Kellerman moved to Los Angeles as a child and attended Hollywood High School. Her initial interest was in jazz singing and by the time she was 18 she was signed to Verve Records. She decided to pursue acting and didn’t release any music until 1972, when she released the album Roll With the Feelin’. She has sung on the side and sometimes in roles throughout her career and released 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. Early in her career she worked primarily for television, with a starring 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 earned her cult status among fans.
In the years following M*A*S*H she worked primarily in film, including Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972) and Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins (1975), both co-starring Alan Arkin, Slither (1973). James Caan, A Little Romance (1979). with Laurence Olivier and 1980’s Foxes with Jodie Foster.
Kellerman worked into her 80s, with several acclaimed television appearances 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 Gem from 1970 to 1972 and to film producer Jonathan D. Krane from 1980 until his death in 2016. She is survived by her son Jack and daughter Claire.