When Sally Kellerman passed away from heart failure in February, 2022, the 84 year-old actress left a legacy of great performances, from the stage to albums, via popular movies like Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School.
However, it was her breakthrough role in Robert Altman’s hit antiwar comedy M*A*S*H that catapulted Kellerman from struggling up-and-comer to award-winning legend.
In the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, the California-born Kellerman struggled through an early career including small roles in TV shows like Star Trek,The Invaders, and The Twilight Zone. She also appeared on Broadway in a musical adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s that was so critically reviled, it closed four shows into its preview run.
It wasn’t until the 1970 release of Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, a comedy about a squad of Korean War surgeons (including future stars Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland), that Kellerman was first recognized as a major talent.
She was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe in the Best Supporting Actress category, for originating the role of Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, the camp’s head nurse and lover of surgeon Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall, in one of his first major leading movie roles).
The film was based on the bestseller M*A*S*H: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, and the success was attributed partly to the genius of ascending director Robert Altman, and in part due to the general antiwar mood in America surrounding the ongoing conflict in Vietnam at the time, without forgetting the great performances from an ensemble of top talents. In addition to Kellerman’s nomination, the film would receive an Oscar nod for Best Picture, and win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival that year.
Although she never appeared in the subsequent hit TV series of the same name, in which the role of “Hot Lips” would be played for 11 years by the also-iconic Loretta Swit, Kellerman would forever be associated with her role in what is generally considered one of the all-time great Hollywood comedies.