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Sally Kellerman - An Obituary

Sally Kellerman – Actress, singer

Born June 2, 1937; died February 24, 2022 


Sally Kellerman, who has died aged 84, was an actress who came to prominence with her bravura turn in M*A*S*H*. (1970), Robert Altman’s adaptation of Richard Hooker’s Korean War set novel. Kellerman played head army nurse Major Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan, a text-book study of uptight efficiency and repressed sexuality that was in direct conflict with the laidback anarchy that prevailed elsewhere. 


This was relayed in two scenes that made Hot Lips the butt of elaborate pranks. The first saw her exposed to a gathered throng when the tent she was showering in was ripped asunder. The second saw her liaison with Robert Duvall’s similarly tightly wound surgeon, Frank Burns, broadcast to the camp on loud speakers in an incident that provided her nickname.



Despite her character being on the receiving end of such chauvinistic antics, Kellerman had the last laugh, when she was nominated for an Oscar. She also became one of Altman’s loose-knit acting ensemble that saw her appear in four more of his films over the next three decades. 


After M*A*S*H*, Kellerman appeared in Atman’s left-field comedy, 

Brewster McCloud (1970), as a woman with unexplained scars on her shoulders, and who becomes a guardian angel to the film’s title character. She went on to appear in the Alan Rudolph directed Welcome to L.A. (1976), which Altman produced. She later made a cameo as herself in The Player (1992), and in Pret-a-Porter (1994), played a magazine editor. She also appeared in an Altman directed episode of Gun (1997), a six part anthology series that follows a gun as it is passed around from person to person. 


Kellerman had previously turned down a role in Altman’s country music festival set epic, Nashville (1975), missing out on a chance to show off her talents as a singer in a part that subsequently went to Karen Black. If things had worked out differently, Kellerman might have taken up singing full time. With the help of a friend, she submitted a demo to jazz based record label, Verve, who signed the then eighteen-year-old jazz fanatic, who then walked away from the prospect of singing alone in the spotlight. Singing continued to play a big part in her life, and several later roles saw her take the microphone.


Kellerman also released two albums; Roll with the Feelin’ (1972); and the eponymous Sally (2009). Her singing voice was heard several times on film, including in Brewster McCloud, and in 

Lost Horizon (1973), director Charles Jarrott and writer Larry Kramer’s musical folly, a remake of Frank Capra’s 1937 film based on James Hilton’s novel. Kellerman played a strung-out photographer who finds enlightenment in Shangri-la following a plane crash in the Himalayas, and sang the Burt Bacharach and Hal David song, The Things I Will Not Miss.


Moving between film, TV and singing over the next four decades, despite the impressive array of roles she notched up, it is for Hot Lips that Kellerman will be remembered best.  


 Sally Clare Kellerman was born in Long Beach, California, the second of three daughters to Edith (nee Vaughan), a piano teacher, and John ‘Jack’ Kellerman, an oil executive. The children were raised as Christian Scientists. The family moved to Los Angeles, where she attended Hollywood High School. 


Despite her shyness, Kellerman acted in a school production of Meet Me in St. Louis,  and was still a teenager when she signed her record contract. She attended Los Angeles City College, and took part in acting classes led by Jeff Corey, who had been blacklisted in the 1950s after refusing to give names of alleged communists to the House Un-American Activities Committee.  


Under Corey’s direction, Kellerman appeared in a stage production of John Osborne’s play, Look Back in Anger, alongside classmates Robert Blake, Shirley Knight, Jack Nicholson and Dean Stockwell. She then joined the newly established Actors Studio West, before making a one-line big screen debut in Reform School Girl (1957). 


The next decade saw Kellerman divide her time between the theatre and television inbetween working as a waitress. She made her professional stage debut in a production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. TV guest roles included episodes of The Twilight Zone  (1962), and Star Trek (1966). She also appeared opposite Tony Curtis in The Boston Strangler (1968).


Following her success in M*A*S*H*, Kellerman concentrated more on music. She made notable appearances, however, in Neil Simon adaptation, Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972), and at the end of the 1970s in A Little Romance (1979), and Foxes (1980). She also took the lead in Big Blonde (1980), a TV film adapted from a Dorothy Parker short story. In 1981, she hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live, closing the show singing Donna Summer’s Starting Over Again. 


Later years saw her play a stream of guest roles on TV. These included an episode of Columbo (1998), a brief stint in American soap, The Young and the Restless (2014), and occasional appearances as Marc Maron’s bohemian mother in the comic actor’s autobiographical sit-com, Maron (2013-2016). In 2013, she published a memoir, Read My Lips: Stories of a Hollywood Life.


Kellerman married twice, to Starsky & Hutch producer Rick Edelstein from 1970-1972; and to film producer Jonathan D. Krane from 1980 to his death in 2016. She is survived by two adopted children, Claire Graham, her niece; and Jack Krane. Jack’s twin sister Hannah, who Kellerman and Krane also adopted, pre-deceased her in 2016.

The Herald, February 28th 2021




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