Actor Sally Kellerman has died of dementia complications at the age of 84. She was best known as U.S. Army Maj. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan in Robert Altman’s MASH, the Palme d’Or and Golden Globe-winning film once voted by the AFI as one of the best American movies of all time.
Though the actor and singer was best known for her work with Altman (they worked together on numerous other occasions), she had a 60-year career that began in 1957, when she starred in the sexploitation B-movie Reform School Girls.
Pre-MASH, she appeared in many of the best-regarded TV shows of the 1960s, including The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, The Outer Limits and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.
Kellerman worked consistently in film, TV and commercials (she was the voice of Hidden Valley Ranch ads for many years) until 2017, when she gave her final performances in the cult shows Difficult People and Decker.
5 TV and Film Roles to Remember Sally Kellerman By
Robert Altman’s innovative Korean War military hospital comedy gained Kellerman her one Oscar nomination. She plays Major Margaret J. Houlihan, the by-the-book head nurse christened “Hot Lips” by the misogynistic male medics she works alongside.
In a 2013 interview with NJ.com, Kellerman said of her role: “Well, there was a lot of chauvinism there, sure. I loved Bob but he was a real male chauvinist, probably the worst. I’m kidding. Sort of kidding.” However, in the same interview she said of her time on set: “He [Altman] made it like a picnic. A picnic with a genius.”
Back to School, 1986
While MASH made stars of its male actors like Donald Sutherland, Alan Alda and Elliott Gould, Kellerman didn’t reach the same level of success – though she released an album in the 1970s and acted in films like the Sesame Street spin-off Follow That Bird and the Jodie Foster-starring Foxes.
Though many of her films from that era are little seen today, one has reached cult classic status—Back to School, the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield comedy (and sixth-highest-grossing film of its year) in which she plays the female lead, a character Roger Ebert described as the “predictable, but well-cast…sexy English teacher.”
Over the years, Kellerman starred in four Altman films, as well as Welcome to L.A., which Altman produced. She also turned down a role in his masterpiece Nashville, something she was still expressing regret over in interviews 40 years later.
The last of their four collaborations (the others were MASH, Brewster McCloud and The Player, where she played herself) was Pret-a-Porter, Altman’s fashion world satire in which the actor played the editor of Harper’s Bazaar.
The film was nominated for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, while the cast won a National Board of Review Award for Best Acting by An Ensemble.
Her role in the influential MASH gained her adulation from a generation of comedy fans, and two of those gave her defining later-life roles. Tim Heidecker cast her in his action spoof Decker as a Dracula-controlled Hillary Clinton-parodying first lady, while Marc Maron cast her as his mother on his IFC show.
On the news of her death, Maron tweeted: “Sally Kellerman was radiant and beautiful and fun and so great to work with. She played my mom on my series ‘Maron.’ My real mom was very flattered and a bit jealous. I’m sad she’s gone. RIP.”
The Young and the Restless, 2014-2016
Across her six-decade career, Kellerman appeared in most genres across TV and film, but she had never starred in a soap opera. That changed in 2014 when she was cast as the wheelchair-bound Constance Bingham in Y&R. Her character was being conned by a man she thought was her grandson (played by future This Is Us star Justin Hartley), and died after being poisoned.
In an interview with Michael Fairman, she said of the role (which bagged her a Daytime Emmy nomination), “I never thought about doing a daytime soap before, not even for a moment.,..But, I really enjoy my time there and love everybody. It’s so organized and amazingly run. They have given me the nicest dressing room and parking spot! They have treated me like gold. I love everyone in the make-up department. My idea of a good movie is a good make-up artist and some burritos and a donut and hanging out in the trailer!”