Sally Kellerman, Oscar-Nominated as ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan in ‘MASH,’ Dies at 84
Art and Experience:
Her publicist Alan Eichler confirmed her death, and her daughter Claire added that she had been suffering from dementia for the past five years.
Among her other roles were a cameo in Altman’s “The Player,” a professor in Rodney Dangerfield’s “Back to School” and a Starfleet officer in the “Star Trek” episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”
The willowy blonde actress with the characteristically throaty voice appeared in two Altman films in 1970; the other was the more experimental “Brewster McCloud,” in which she starred with Bud Cort and Michael Murphy. In this film, which did not have a conventional narrative, Kellerman played Louise, the mother of Cort’s bewinged character, Brewster.
She next starred opposite Alan Arkin in the Gene Saks-directed Neil Simon effort “Last of the Red Hot Lovers.” The Cleveland Press wrote, “Sally Kellerman as the first woman makes out the best, managing to be both alluring and hostile. She’s great with a put-down and her retorts have bite.”
She starred with James Caan in the goofy 1973 road movie “Slither” (in which the actress played a witch, no less) and was among the starry cast of the musical version of “Lost Horizon.” Kellerman reteamed with Arkin along with a young Mackenzie Phillips for another wacky road movie, 1975’s “Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins,” then was part of the starry cast assembled for the spoof disaster movie “The Big Bus.”
In 1976’s “Welcome to L.A.,” made by Altman acolyte Alan Rudolph (and produced by Altman), Kellerman played a realtor — frantic because her husband is cheating on her — who is among the women that a songwriter played by Keith Carradine sleeps with during a sojourn in Los Angeles.
She appeared in the critically acclaimed “Great Performances” outing “Verna: USO Girl,” starring Sissy Spacek. Variety said: “Kellerman, singing in a whiskey baritone or dropping supposedly sophisticated comments, reflects that particular type of blasé attitude that WWII curtailed, if it didn’t kill it.”
Returning to television, where she had started, Kellerman had a major role in NBC’s mammoth 1978 miniseries “Centennial,” starring as Raymond Burr’s daughter, who marries the fur trapper Pasquinel, played by Robert Conrad, who is central to the story.
The actress portrayed the mother of a very young Diane Lane in the delightful “A Little Romance,” but the focus here was on the teen lovers; Kellerman and Arthur Hill were in the picture to have a troubled marriage from which Lane’s character sought escape. Kellerman had a more interesting role in her next picture, the teen-girls-go-astray pic “Foxes,” in which she and Jodie Foster established in a few scenes a believably complicated mother-daughter relationship.
In the early 1980s, Kellerman began to do a series of TV movies, including “Big Blonde,” based on the Dorothy Parker story, and “September Gun,” a Western in which she played madam Mama Queen.
She returned to the big screen for the derivative comedy “Moving Violations,” in which she played a scheming judge, and the next year starred in the Dangerfield vehicle “Back to School,” in which she played the love interest, a sexy professor.
In Blake Edwards’ “That’s Life,” starring Jack Lemmon and Julie Andrews, she played a helpful neighbor, then segued to “Meatballs III.”
Fortunately, she soon found a part in Henry Jaglom’s 1987 film “Someone to Love,” in which she played what the New York Times described as “an actress without an unmannered bone in her body,” and in 1993 she appeared in Percy Adlon’s “Younger and Younger,” starring Donald Sutherland and Lolita Davidovich.
She starred with Dave Thomas in “Boris and Natasha,” a live-action adaptation of the Jay Ward cartoon, in 1992.
Returning to work for Altman for the first time since the 1970s, Kellerman was among the starry casts of excellent Hollywood satire “The Player” (1992), in which she cameoed as herself, and 1994’s less successful, Paris couture-centered “Ready to Wear,” in which she played a magazine editor involved in a rivalry with others. The actress later appeared in a 1997 episode of the brief ABC series “Gun” directed by Altman.
In 1997 Kellerman and husband Jonathan D. Krane produced the film “The Lay of the Land,” based on a play by Mel Shapiro in which the actress had previously starred. Kellerman and Ed Begley Jr. toplined the film, but it did not generate critical or popular support.
The actress joined Dyan Cannon and Brenda Vaccaro in Susan Seidelman’s 2005 bittersweet comedy “Boynton Beach Club,” about women in their 60s pursuing romance in a South Florida enclave. Referring to Kellerman as “lean, blond, flashing her crocodile grin,” the New York Times said the film’s most touching scenes observe the nervous re-entry into the dating world of Len Cariou’s character, who, “under the patient ministrations” of Kellerman’s character, “regains his sexual confidence.”
She had recurred on daytime soap “The Young and the Restless” as the mysterious Constance Bingham.
In 2011 Kellerman played a woman with dementia in a retirement home in the film “Night Club,” which also starred Mickey Rooney and Ernest Borgnine; in 2014 the actress was part of the large ensemble cast of “Reach Me,” about the effect of an inspirational book on a wide variety of people.
In the 1990s and 2000s the actress guested on TV series including “Evening Shade,” “Murder, She Wrote,” HBO’s “Dream On,” Tea Leoni series “The Naked Truth,” “Touched by an Angel,” “Diagnosis Murder,” “Columbo,” “Providence” and “90210.” More recently, she recurred on IFC series “Maron” as Marc Maron’s bohemian mother.
Given her sexy, intriguing voice, the actress naturally did voice work: Her credits included 1985 feature “Sesame Street Presents: Follow that Bird” (Miss Finch), 1990 animated feature “Happily Ever After,” ABC series “Dinosaurs” and FX series “Unsupervised”; she was also the voice behind Hidden Valley ranch dressing, Mercedes-Benz and Revlon.
Kellerman was also a singer, who signed a recording contract with Verve Records when she 18, though her first album, “Roll With the Feelin ’,” was not recorded until 1972. Her second album, “Sally,” was released in 2009. The actress also contributed songs to the soundtracks for “Brewster McCloud,” “Lost Horizon,” “Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins” and “Boris and Natasha: The Movie,” among others.
Sally Clare Kellerman was born in Long Beach, Calif. She began her showbiz career by taking Jeff Corey’s acting class, soon after which she appeared in a Corey-staged production of “Look Back in Anger” that also featured her classmates Shirley Knight, Jack Nicholson, Dean Stockwell and Robert Blake. In the late 1950s, Kellerman joined the newly opened Actors Studio West.
She made her feature debut in 1957’s “Reform School Girls” and next appeared on the big screen in 1962’s “Hands of a Stranger,” 1965’s “The Third Day” and “The Lollipop Cover.” Her first high-profile film was 1968’s “The Boston Stranger,” starring Tony Curtis and Henry Fonda, in which she had a supporting role as a victim of the strangler who survives his attack, but does not remember anything about him. She also had a supporting role in the 1969 film “The April Fools” as the wife of Lemmon, who has an affair with Catherine Deneuve, before breaking out the next year in “MASH.”
The actress worked mostly in television during the 1960s, appearing notably as Dr. Elizabeth Dehner in an episode of original “Star Trek” series called “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Other TV credits during the period include “Twilight Zone,” “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” “My Three Sons,” “The Outer Limits,” “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” “I Spy,” “That Girl,” “Hawaii Five-O” and “Mannix.”
Kellerman’s memoir, “Read My Lips: Stories of a Hollywood Life,” was published in 2013.
She was married to TV writer-director Rick Edelstein for two years in the early 1970s. Kellerman married writer-producer Krane in 1980 and he died in 2016. Kellerman is survived by her son Jack and daughter Claire.