LOS ANGELES — Sally Kellerman, the Oscar- and Emmy-nominated actor who played Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan in director Robert Altman’s 1970 film “MASH,” died Thursday.
Kellerman died of heart failure at her home in the Woodland Hills section of Los Angeles, her manager and publicist Alan Eichler said. She was 84.
Kellerman had a career of more than 60 years in film and television. She played a college professor who was returning student Rodney Dangerfield’s love interest in the 1986 comedy “Back to School.” And she was a regular in Altman’s films, appearing in 1970’s “Brewster McCloud,” 1992’s “The Player” and 1994’s “Ready to Wear.”
But she would always be best known for playing Major Houlihan, a straitlaced, by-the-book Army nurse who is tormented by rowdy doctors during the Korean War in the army comedy “MASH.”
In the film’s key scene, and its peak moment of misogyny, a tent where Houlihan is showering is pulled open and she is exposed to an audience of cheering men.
“This isn’t a hospital, this is an insane asylum!” she screams at her commanding officer.
She carries on a torrid affair with the equally uptight Major Frank Burns, played by Robert Duvall, demanding that he kiss her “hot lips” in a moment secretly broadcast over the camp’s public address speakers, earning her the nickname.
Kellerman said Altman brought out the best in her.
“It was a very freeing, positive experience,” she told Dick Cavett in a 1970 TV interview. “For the first time in my life I took chances, I didn’t suck in my cheeks, or worry about anything.”
The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, but her best supporting actress was its only acting nod despite a cast that included Duvall, Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould.
The movie would be turned into a TV series that lasted 11 seasons, with Loretta Swit in the Houlihan role.
“I never wanted [the TV part],” Kellerman told the Sun-Times in 2013. “At that time, I was trying so hard to get out of television and do movies and, of course, tour singing with my band and making music. …
“When ‘MASH’ was into its 11th season, I thought, ‘What have I done?! They’re all rich!’ … But no, I seriously have never regretted not doing it.”
In 1986, Kellerman won a new generation of fans in the Dangerfield vehicle “Back to School.”
“I really did fall in love with him,” Kellerman said in a Sun-Times interview then. “He’s a sweet, very funny man. So it was easy. And the director was very sensitive. But it’s just like real life. When you get interested in someone, you start by hanging out with them. When you really get along and you really like them, romantic things follow. It was the same way here.”
Sally Clare Kellerman was born in 1937 in Long Beach, California, the daughter of a piano teacher and an oil executive, moving to Los Angeles as a child and attending Hollywood High School.
Her initial interest was in jazz singing, and she was signed to a contract with Verve records at age 18. She opted to pursue acting and didn’t put out any music until 1972, when she released the album “Roll With the Feeling.”
in the wake of the “MASH” role, she briefly abandoned her sizzling acting career to tour as a singer, a decision she later regretted.
“It nearly destroyed my movie career,” she said in the 1986 interview. “Instead of building a power base, I went off and did that. It took me a long time to come back.”
Even after resuming her acting career, she would sing on the side, and sometimes in roles, releasing her last album, “Sally,” in 2007.
Early in her career she worked mostly in television, with a lead role in 1962’s “Cheyenne” and guest appearances on “The Twilight Zone, “The Outer Limits,” “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” and “Bonanza.”
Her appearance in the original “Star Trek” pilot as Dr. Elizabeth Dehner won her cult status among that show’s fans.
She would work primarily in film in the years following “MASH,” including 1972’s “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” and 1975’s “Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins,” both with Alan Arkin, 1973’s “Slither” with James Caan, 1979’s ”A Little Romance” with Laurence Olivier and 1980’s “Foxes” with Jodie Foster.
She would work into her 80s, with several acclaimed television performances in her final years.
She starred in the comedy series “Decker” with Tim Heidecker and played comedian Mark Maron’s mother on his series “Maron.”
“Sally Kellerman was radiant and beautiful and fun and so great to work with,” Maron said on Twitter Thursday. “My real mom was very flattered and a bit jealous. I’m sad she’s gone.”
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 Edelstein from 1970 to 1972 and to movie producer Jonathan D. Krane from 1980 until his death in 2016.
She is survived by her son Jack and daughter Claire.