Sally Kellerman, a veteran actor and musician best known for her starring role in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, has died. Kellerman was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of regulation-loving head nurse Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan in the 1970 film. Per The Hollywood Reporter, Kellerman was 84.
Kellerman originally tried to break into the business as a singer, scoring a potential record contract with Verve when she was only 18. Instead, though, she pivoted into acting, with a notable run of TV guest star appearances throughout the late ’50s and ’60s. (Appearing in The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Star Trek, The Invaders, and many other products of the TV genre boom.)
But despite a few early film roles, Kellerman didn’t break out until M*A*S*H, Altman’s chaotic, sometimes meandering comedy about surgeons in the Korean War. The film’s treatment of her character is unambiguously misogynistic and cruel, but Kellerman’s haughty dignity in the part nevertheless shines through. Kellerman would later joke about her sometimes complicated relationship with Altman—who she’d work with several more times—in an interview in 2013, while promoting her autobiography:
Well, there was a lot of chauvinism there, sure. I loved Bob but he was a real male chauvinist, probably the worst. I’m kidding. Sort of kidding.
(In a later portion of that same interview, Kellerman openly regrets turning down a role in Altman’s later film, Nashville.)
After being nominated for an Oscar for M*A*S*H, Kellerman found many more doors open to her in Hollywood—many of which she passed on, having rediscovered her passion for music, instead. (She ultimately produced two albums across a long career.) Which isn’t to say she didn’t act at all: Her filmography from the post-M*A*S*H era includes collaborations with James Caan and Jodie Foster, a voice role opposite Big Bird in Follow That Bird, and numerous film and television projects across the years. (Including a brief re-collaboration with Altman in 1989, when she appeared in his Hollywood satire The Player as… Sally Kellerman.)
In later years, she often focused on commercial work, as well as voiceover, employing a voice that be smooth, aristocratic, or disdainful pretty much on command; Kellerman spent years as the voice of Hidden Valley Ranch ads, among dozens of other roles. In recent years, she continued to work regularly, popping up in sometimes surprising places: As Marc Maron’s mom on Maron, a run on The Young And The Restless in 2014, and even as part of the convoluted web of projects surrounding Tim Heidecker’s On Cinema. (Both Maron and Heidecker paid tribute to Kellerman today.)
Through it all, Kellerman projected a deep sense of both fun and charm, whether tossing back witticisms with Rodney Dangerfield in Back To School, or dramatically condescending to Big Bird on a Sesame Street movie. She reportedly died Thursday morning, in an assisted care facility in California, as reported by her son, Jack.