'Hot Lips' Houlihan of MASH Dies at 84

Sally Kellerman played the role in original film
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 25, 2022 12:00 AM CST
MASH 's 'Hot Lips' Houlihan Is Dead at 84
Sally Kellerman arrives at the premiere of "The Danish Girl" at Regency Village Theatre on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015, in Los Angeles.   (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File)

Sally Kellerman, the Oscar and Emmy nominated actor who played Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan in director Robert Altman's 1970 film MASH, died Thursday. Kellerman died of heart failure at her home in the Woodland Hills section of Los Angeles, her manager and publicist Alan Eichler said. She was 84, the AP reports. Kellerman had a career of more than 60 years in film and television. She played a college professor who was returning student Rodney Dangerfield's love interest in the 1986 comedy Back to School. And she was a regular in Altman's films, appearing in 1970's Brewster McCloud, 1992's The Player and 1994's Ready to Wear.

But she would always be best known for playing Major Houlihan, a straitlaced, by-the-book Army nurse who is tormented by rowdy doctors during the Korean War in the army comedy MASH. In the film's key scene, and its peak moment of misogyny, a tent where Houlihan is showering is pulled open and she is exposed to an audience of cheering men. “This isn't a hospital, this is an insane asylum!” she screams at her commanding officer. She carries on a torrid affair with the equally uptight Major Frank Burns, played by Robert Duvall, demanding that he kiss her “hot lips” in a moment secretly broadcast over the camp's public address speakers, earning her the nickname.

Kellerman said Altman brought out the best in her. “It was a very freeing, positive experience,” she told Dick Cavett in a 1970 TV interview. “For the first time in my life I took chances, I didn’t suck in my cheeks, or worry about anything.” The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, but her best supporting actress was its only acting nod despite a cast that included Duvall, Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould. The movie would be turned into a TV series that lasted 11 seasons, with Loretta Swit in Kellerman's role. (More on Kellerman's life and career, which lasted into her 80s, here.)

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