Sally Kellerman: Young 'Hot Lips' Houlihan, Then And Now

Entertainment | October 31, 2019

Left: Kellerman on 'Star Trek.' Right: Kellerman in MASH. Source: IMDB

You might have first met Sally Kellerman in the '60s (playing Dr. Elizabeth Dehner on Star Trek), the '70s (as "Hot Lips" Houlihan from MASH), or the '80s (as Rodney Dangerfield's teacher/lover in Back To School) -- whatever the case, you know that face and voice from somewhere. And if none of those ring a bell, perhaps it was her Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressing commercials, or her recent run as Marc Maron's TV mom. 

Since the 1960s, Kellerman has been a mainstay in film and television, and she’s even released a few albums. While many stars of her caliber have worked in the same medium since their beginnings she’s moved around from form to form in order to follow her bliss. This kind of flitting may not work for everyone, but it shows that Kellerman isn’t afraid to take risks. Her six-decade career has taken her to some fascinating places, which makes it easy to be a fan.

Kellerman Wasn’t Popular In High School

source: wikipedia

Even though she’s blossomed into a well loved celebrity, Kellerman grew up feeling like an outsider. She was born in Long Beach, California, but she and her family moved to San Fernando Valley when she was in the fifth grade. The family moved again during her sophomore year of high school, which sent her to Hollywood High School. While she was acting in high school plays like Meet Me in St. Louis, she was still a lonely student. In 1980 she told Roger Ebert:

I went to Hollywood High School. It was the era of bobby socks and ponytails, high heels and makeup. I was a bad girl. That meant I smoked, knew how to swear, and sometimes I drank a beer. I was so dumb I had to be taught to swear. They called me Miss Innocent. I didn't smoke grass until I was 27… Hollywood High was bizarre. It was run by cliques. There was one bench where, at lunchtime, all the girls sat who were going to be models. I sat down on their bench one day. They talked about me real loud to one another. ‘I guess SOMEBODY'S sitting on our bench.’ For three months after that, I ate my lunch in the bathroom. I didn't know what bench to sit on.

Verve Records Signed Her When She Was 18

source: youtube

Kellerman didn’t start her journey towards stardom with her eyes on the screen -- her first ambition was vinyl. When she was 18 she signed a recording contract with the Verve label, but she didn’t actually have a chance to release her debut album until the early ‘70s. After signing the contract she appeared in some films in minimal roles, but she thought that she was still destined for radio. She explained:

I started out wanting to be a jazz singer. I had a contract with Verve when I was 18. Nothing came of it. Then I was in a movie called Reform School Girls, with Edd Byrnes. I had one line. My second film was Hands of a Stranger. I had one line and I was killed. I thought I was a real good singer, but it was less scary to get into acting, because you could do that with somebody. Singing you had to do by yourself.

Kellerman Was All Over TV In The 1960s

source: CBS

After her first attempt at a music career fizzled, Kellerman switched things up and started working on her acting career. She appeared on a lot of genre television throughout the '60s, most famously as Dr. Elizabeth Dehner in the seminal Star Trek episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” If science fiction isn’t your bag, you definitely saw her on Cheyenne, Bonanza, or Mannix. In a 1971 Life magazine interview, Kellerman didn’t look back fondly on her early television career: 

It took me eight years to get into TV—and six years to get out. Frigid women, alcoholics they gave me. I got beat up, raped, and never played comedy. 

When she met Robert Altman her career took off 

source: 20th century fox

Just as Kellerman was pushing the small screen away she took on one of the defining roles of her career, that of Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan in Robert Altman’s MASH (1970). She finally had a chance to flex of her comedy muscles, something that she’d been trying to do for a decade in TV. As Hot Lips she earned Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations and she found a lifelong cinematic partner in director Robert Altman. Kellerman later said of the director:

He was a rebel. Always making trouble. It made you better and made it fun. It's so great to do what you love and have it be fun and people enjoy it.

Even though she clearly loved working with Altman (she appeared in Brewster McCloud the same year and Prêt-à-Porter in 1994), Kellerman says that she turned down a role in Nashville, a film that would have helped her show off her singing skills, something she’s got to be kicking herself about. She said:

I had just finished filming Last of the Red Hot Lovers when Bob called me one day at home. ‘Sally, do you want to be in my picture after next?’ he asked. ‘Only if it's a good part,’ I said. He hung up on me. Bob was as stubborn and arrogant as I was at the time, but the sad thing is that I cheated myself out of working with someone I loved so much, someone who made acting both fun and easy and who trusted his actors. Stars would line up to work for nothing for Bob Altman.

She Stepped Away From Acting To Give Her Singing Career Another Shot

source: pinterest

In the 1970s, Kellerman took a break from her successful acting career in order to try to hit it big in the music industry. Unfortunately, not only did she get out of her comfort zone, but she discovered that it’s hard to build a career from the ground up, even when you’ve been in one of the most popular movies of the ‘70s.  In 1980 she told Roger Ebert:

Four years ago, when I could have been making movies, I made a decision to completely drop my movie career and go on the road as a singer. I was the big main attraction: Spangles, feathers and beads. They called me the Marlene Dietrich of rock. I toured with 11 musicians until my money ran out. Then I cut down to just a music director and a sound and light man… It was a humbling experience. I bombed in New Orleans, I bombed several places. Some places I did all right. I thought I was singing very well. I remember being in Ohio, in a Ramada Inn by the freeway, suddenly thinking to myself, By going out on the road like this, I didn't become a better singer… I just got out of show business. 

Kellerman's Never Stopped Working

source: IFC

Once Kellerman decided to start acting again, it didn’t take long for her to make a big comeback. There’s a good chance that most young people know Kellerman from her work in the 1980s in movies like Back to School (1986) or Moving Violations (1985), or they may even know her voice work from later films like Ratatouille. Ironically enough, Kellerman has spent most of her career trying to show off her comedy chops, her late career in the 2010s saw her showing up in prestige comedies with Marc Maron and super weird shows like Comedy Bang! Bang! It just goes to show that all you have to do is keep working to get what you want. 

Tags: Ladies | MASH | Sally Kellerman | Star Trek | Then And Now

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.