Moviegoers know Sally Kellerman best for her breakthrough performance as Hot Lips Houlihan in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H. The classic 1969 film led to an Oscar nomination and a spate of major roles. With her crooked smile, slouchy sexiness and über-cool delivery, the tall, slender, disheveled blonde has a timeless quality to this day.
A presence on TV, especially via voiceover work, the 70-something Kellerman today focuses on her lifelong passion: singing. In the 1950s she was actually contracted with the jazz label Verve Records. But at 18 and just out of Hollywood High, she never followed through. “I was flat-out scared,” she recalls in her candid and colorful memoir Read My Lips: Stories of a Hollywood Life. Turning to acting, she found encouragement under the tutelage of legendary coach Jeff Corey. Classmates included Jack Nicholson, Roger Corman and Dick Chamberlain.
There’s plenty of star power here. Madly infatuated with the super-sexy Marlon Brando, Kellerman partied at his house, smoked pot with the Malibu crowd (Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, etc.), and found a “fairy godmother”-mentor in that queen of the Golden Age film, Jennifer Jones. A product of the Southern California dreamscape, she waited tables while studying acting. She serves up yummy details about Chez Paulette, a coffeehouse located on the Sunset Strip, where customers included Steve McQueen and Brando. Recounting a time devoid of paparazzi and cell phone cameras, she notes, “The actors we admired were larger than life and yet within reach.” Her rise up the ladder included bit parts in B-movies (starting with 1957’s Reform School Girls). An episode of the spooky series “The Outer Limits”proved a game-changer. She’s never stopped working.
Always unorthodox, she adopted her sister’s daughter (the result of a custody battle) and was in her 40s when she married producer Jonathan Krane, 12 years her junior. She was in her early 50s when the couple adopted twins. Kellerman fesses up to marital challenges, noting that at least it hasn’t been boring. Nothing about her is.
Upfront about her adventures with drugs, sex, even a headline-making scandal, her Read My Lips vividly details a durable career that took shape during Hollywood’s pivotal ‘60s and ‘70s.
Hollywood writer Pat Broeske once dined with Sally Kellerman and her producer-husband. Kellerman was aloof—until Broeske’s husband said he’d brought along the actress’ first album. He left with an autograph, and a kiss.