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Sally Kellerman, known as Margaret Houlihan in 'MASH,' dies at 84

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."

Her role in 'Mash' led to an Oscar nomination

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 Kellerman's role.

Kellerman's entertainment career began in music

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." She would sing on the side, and sometimes in roles, throughout her career, releasing her last album, "Sally," in 2007.

She took an acting class 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.

Her credits included television performances into her final years

She worked mostly in television early in her career, 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 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.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press
[Copyright 2024 NPR]