Sometimes an actor or actress can be defined by a singular performance. Everyone remembers Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind,“ but most people would be hard pressed to name any of her other films (I can name one, “Caesar & Cleopatra,” only because I saw it for a class in college). This type of “one hit wonder” usually occurs when the actor or actress is cast in an unforeseen blockbuster and is forever identified with a certain character.
Sally Kellerman is a good example of that. She is now 76 years old (hard to believe!) and has enjoyed a highly successful acting career spanning over half a century. Her film credits include the epic “M*A*S*H” in 1970, the adorable “A Little Romance” in 1979 and the hilarious “Back to School” with Rodney Dangerfield in 1986. She also appeared in the second pilot of “Star Trek” in 1966, but I couldn’t tell you another film or television show in which she took part.
“M*A*S*H” was the film that made her. It’s one of the greatest comedy classics of all-time, and inspired the long-running hit television series. “M*A*S*H,” which stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, covers the hi-jinx and surgical exploits of a medical unit during the Korean War. The surgeons are all top-notch but enjoy having over-the-top fun during their down time.
Kellerman was cast as the blonde bombshell head nurse, Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Hoolahan, who is a straight-arrow, by-the-book Army officer. When asked where she is from she replies she likes to think of the Army as her home. We witness her transformation from a stickler for Army regulations to becoming part of the wild side of the “M*A*S*H” unit. Hoolahan is probably the most memorable character in the movie.
Forty-three years after the film’s premiere, Kellerman has finally written her autobiography. Fittingly, it’s called “Read My Lips: Stories of a Hollywood Life.” I was attracted to the book because I wanted to read some insights into the movie (it is one of the best films I’ve ever seen) and find out more about an actress I only identify with that one role.
What I found was that Kellerman has had quite a roller-coaster life. She has seen it all despite having grown up near Hollywood and living in Los Angeles her entire life. She knew a lot of the big-time celebrities and even dated Henry Kissinger at one time.
Kellerman also starred in several films that I either didn’t see or never heard of, provided the voice-over for more products that I can name, and even had a successful singing career. She has basically been under-the-radar other than her role as “Hot Lips.” I didn’t even know she sang!
Reading her book reminded me of Penny Marshall’s autobiography. They were both exposed to Hollywood as aspiring young actresses and ended up meeting many of the heavyweights of the industry. It’s notable how casually both mention superstars as being life-long friends as if it’s no big deal. You get the impression that all celebrities literally know each other.
One stereotype of Hollywood that is apparently true is that the drug culture is alive and well and has been so for at least a couple of generations. Both Kellerman and Marshall speak of the casual use of marijuana and harder drugs as if it’s a natural part of the celebrity existence. Neither one makes any value judgments on their widespread use.
Kellerman always seemed to be battling back from something tragic whether it was the loss of a close friend to cancer, a bad investment or a horrible marriage. Despite the downside, she shares some wonderful anecdotes. Besides her experiences with “M*A*S*H” (which she called the greatest of her life), Kellerman has some fascinating tales of her “relationship” with Kissinger, her “terrifying” neighbors who weren’t so terrifying, and the hiring of a carpenter who ended up destined for stardom.
“Read My Lip”s is not for everyone. If you’ve had your fill of Hollywood celebrities you won’t find it satisfying. But if you are a Sally Kellerman fan, curious about the “M*A*S*H” mystique, or simply enjoy the stories of an aging actress, there’s plenty to keep you entertained. “Read My Lips” may not be the greatest memoir ever written, but it’s definitely an enlightening read.
David Kent is the director of the Village Library of Cooperstown. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.