Saturday, February 26, 2022

Goodbye to Our Big, Beautiful Blonde: Sally Kellerman

Sally Kellerman, best known as "Hot Lips" Houlihan in the 1970 movie M*A*S*H, stood at 5' 10" tall and weighed a hefty 175 pounds with a "butch" haircut when she took a bit part in 1957's B-movie "Reform School Girls."

A graduate of Hollywood High who grew up in Long Beach and the San Fernando Valley, Kellerman took acting classes with the likes of Jack Nicholson, Robert Towne, Carol Eastman, and Shirley Knight before landing acting roles on TV shows, including an appearance in the "Star Trek" pilot, and in "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" (playing a girl who is captured by the musky smell of Maynard's hair tonic).

Struggling with her weight, Kellerman used diet pills starting at the age of 18 (dexamyl spansules, which "made me feel like Felix the Cat on the inside. They burnt out my nervous system and eventually became a popular street drug.") Of her iconic shower scene in M*A*S*H, she wrote, "For someone like me, who had ridden the roller-coaster of pregnant women's urine, dexamyl capsules, apple diets, and  fruit fasts to always run back to cookies, brownies, and candy—the mainstays of my diet—getting naked was not at the top of any 'to-do' list." She recalled of her time working on the ensemble-style film with director and Very Important Pothead Robert Altman that, "After shooting, we'd smoke a little grass and some would have a drink. We'd all go to the dailies together." 

She appeared in other Altman films (Brewster McCloud, Ready to Wear), as well as playing Jodie Foster's mother in Little Foxes and Rodney Dangerfield's love interest in Back to School. She was superb in the 1972 movie version of Neil Simon's The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, and was acclaimed for her performance in the PBS Great Performances production of Big Blonde, based on a poignant Dorothy Parker short story.

Tom Pittman
In her 2013 memoir Read My Lips: Stories of a Hollywood Life, Kellerman wrote about the terrible time in 1958 when her good friend and promising young actor Tom Pittman went missing, and she was questioned by police about whether or not he smoked marijuana. She demurred. Pittman had advised her not to smoke because she was a singer, but she knew he did.

"Even though most everyone I knew did smoke, it still wasn't the kind of thing you discussed openly," she wrote. "Smoking grass was not tolerated in any way in the 1950s and was definitely the kind of activity you pulled the shades down for, still something that sent you running for the toilet if the police were called to quiet down your party."

During a brutal "good cop/bad cop" interrogation where cops screamed at her, "Because of you, young lady, he's probably lying dead somewhere in a ditch!" and "What kind of monkey does he have on his back!?" Kellerman finally cried, "Sure, he gets high, who doesn't?" This lead some to accuse her of being a stool pigeon after cops claimed they found marijuana in Pittman's car, discovered at the bottom of a steep ravine 19 days after he was reported missing. 

In Read My Lips, the actress recounts that the first time she got high was at Nicholson's house, with her date Larry Kert, the actor who originated the role of  Tony in "West Side Story" on Broadway. Argentinian actor Alejandro Rey from The Flying Nun was at the party which, "after we all had our fair share of herb," turned into a strange experience since Rey kept saying he wanted to go to the police to report himself for smoking.

"My second time smoking pot, with Larry, was so much fun, so freeing," she wrote. "I hopped on the back of his motorcycle, and we flew into a rainy LA night without a care in the world....I soon began smoking a lot more grass. I had a right to come home and relax my mind after a hard day's work, I thought." She and Larry would go to the Malibu home of their friend, actor Robert Walker and his wife Ellie, where "we would swim, smoke grass, and eat delicious meals that Ellie cooked for everyone." Later, another Larry (Hauben) talked her into taking psilocybin mushrooms and filming themselves making love, but showing only their legs (or so he said) for a movie they were working on.

Kellerman earned an Oscar nomination for her work in M*A*S*H, and describes being fitted for a dress for the awards ceremony just before leaving with her first husband for Mexico to try peyote, "because my husband had taken it before and claimed to see God." Possibly because of all the diet pills she'd taken in her life (she theorized), she didn't have a good experience and also failed to eat during the trip, causing her to lose weight and making the dress she planned to wear to the Oscars ill-fitting. 

She tried altering the dress for modesty, but to no avail, and she caused a sensation in the press over her "accidentally risqué, daring, fabulous dress, with the neckline practically at my navel." Today "that dress would hardly warrant a whimper, as everybody's dress is practically falling off," she wrote. "And it's funny to think that the mistake that caused all that uproar and attention—making me the precursor of J Lo in Versace—resulted from my peyote-enhanced Mexican getaway."

In 1972, Kellerman made the bold move of touring as a singer and recording an album, "Roll With the Feeling," over the objections of her agent, the pot-loving Sue Mengers.  In her book, Kellerman says that Neil Diamond told her to abandon singing, but she did get a lot of voice-over work during her career. 

Deciding that she wouldn't smoke marijuana while she was working, Kellerman says she became obsessed with when she could smoke again. "Okay, I'm working the next two weeks, but then I'm off for a week. So I can smoke it that Sunday night." She wrote that she stopped smoking pot after a therapist suggested she live a more disciplined life for a year. But she did go off the wagon just afterwards while filming the 1980 film It Rained All Night the Day I Left in Israel. 

Taking daily horseback riding lessons for her role in the film, she noticed that the film's horses were stabled where people "would sit and make hash tea for themselves." She hadn't smoked for nine months, but "it wouldn't be smoking if I drank some tea...So I asked my trainer to see if the Bedouins would let me try a cup—and to put lots of hash in it." Apparently she overdosed, for although she didn't feel anything right away (as with edibles), by the time she got back to her hotel room, "I looked at the ocean outside the bay window and it began to sway, then started surging up and down. The water seemed to rise like a tsunami. I ran into my room, slammed the door behind me, and stood in front of the mirror for two hours, sobbing." 

Kellerman with Maron
Kellerman played Marc Maron's "bohemian" mother in the IFC series "Maron" and she was interviewed on his podcast in 2013, where she recounts many stories from the book, altering the tale about how she quit using marijuana. "I quit for 11 years, and then I quit for four, and then I quit for two, and then for one. And I wasn't honest with my kids about it. I was always sorry about that." She then said that the last time she saw Altman (who died in 2006), they were the only two smoking at a dinner party. "Smoking with Bob, there was no guilt, there was no worries, there was just fun, fun, fun."  

Kellerman died at the age of 84 of heart failure, and also suffered from dementia. Studies indicate cannabis may be helpful against some forms of dementia or its symptoms. As I write this, the world is at war again as Russia invades Ukraine. Marijuana might help us give peace a chance, too.

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