By Laurence Lerman / New York City
“The girl who plays Hot Lips is that one from Star Trek!”
That’s what I burted to my parents when I first saw Sally Kellerman in Robert Altman’s seminal 1970 war satire M*A*S*H upon its network television premiere on the CBS Friday Night Movie back in 1974.
I’ll admit that “girl” was a rather cheeky way to refer to the talented Ms. Kellerman, who at that point was well into her 30s with a decade of mostly television work behind her. But as I was only 11 years old and thrilled to see the woman who had been featured in the indispensable 1966 Star Trek episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” I will ask for amnesty on this one.
Kellerman died of heart failure on Thursday, February 24, at an assisted-living facility in Los Angeles. She was 84.
Kellerman’s turns as a galaxy-hopping Starfleet officer on Trek and as the overwrought but appealing Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan in M*A*S*H were early successes in an acting and singing career that spanned six decades. The role earned her a Golden Globe Award and a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.
The Long Beach, Calif. native went on to appear in a handful of subsequent Altman films, including Brewster McCloud (1971) and The Player (1992), along with dozens of other projects. Lissome, agreeable, intelligent and never shy about turning up the sultriness factor, she enlivened a number of otherwise unremarkable films over the years.
Most notable were Alan Rudolph’s romantic tapestry Welcome to L.A. (1975), Adrian Lyne’s troubling tale of San Fernando Valley teens Foxes (1980) and the nearly-forgotten Marin Country lifestyles send-up Serial (1980). It’s in the latter where Ms. Kellerman, as a bride in a hippie-dippy outdoor wedding, coos the vows, “You-ness, me-ness, us-ness, we-ness,” to which Martin Mull groans, “Sickness.”
Though her musical work—nightclub appearances and recording—never made it onto my radar, the sound of Ms. Kellerman’s voice sure did. She did frequent commercial voiceover work over the years and her husky but velvety tones were always identifiable. Her spots for Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressing actually inspired me to give it a try. And I might have considered buying a Mercedes after hearing her commercials for them, had I been able to afford one.
Both the sound and vision of Ms. Kellerman came into play in the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield vehicle Back To School. She plays a college literature professor to Rodney’s wealthy but uneducated father, who drops into college to show solidarity with his discouraged son. The pair “meet cute” when Sally transcendentally recites James Joyce at a seminar in front of an ogling Rodney; he then pursues her romantically in the hope that she might “straighten out my Longfellow.” (His words).
Yes, they hook up. And, yes, Sally Kellerman elevates Rodney Dangerfield to viability as a Hollywood leading man.
Now that’s an actress!
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.