News Column

Patricia Sheridan's Breakfast With ... Sally Kellerman

June 17, 2013


June 17--Sally Kellerman, best known as "Hot Lips" O'Houlihan in Robert Altman's film "M--A--S--H," has written her memoir. "Read My Lips: Stories of a Hollywood Life" is a candid account of her ups and downs, including how she ended up adopting her niece when her sister left her husband. Ms. Kellerman has also taken her singing career on the road and is releasing an album.

The book is ultra candid. Was there anything you left out because you thought it was too personal and were there any concerns about what you included?

[Laughing.] As my mother said to me one day, "Darling, do you have to tell everything you know?" This was years ago and I wasn't writing a book. I said, "Well, I guess so, Mom." Had I had any sense about it after I'd finished the book, I would have thought, "Oh my God! What did I say? Why did I reveal that? Oh my lord" [laughing]. But, you know, the reason was just to share things about people that I loved, and things that made me laugh and some things that made me cry. I just felt if I was going to write a book ... the only things I write about are things that have meaning for me.

It seems to be a very clear look at a Hollywood life, at least your Hollywood life.

While I was writing and when I read my book after I had finished -- which I was trying not to do [laughing] -- I saw the changes in Hollywood and how life has changed in general. Certainly we are all aware of that, but it was such a different time.

You did have stories -- Harrison Ford was your carpenter and Groucho Marx came over and inadvertently named your niece/daughter.

It was wonderful to have Harrison Ford be my carpenter. He was so handsome. He was kind of solid and just came to work and when I say in the book, "But Harrison, I wanted that to be big enough for two." He would just say, "But that's the way it has to be." He was just so darn handsome and dreamy that I would go. "OK, great. Perfect just for one."

I loved your mother's platitudes throughout the book.

Oh thank you. I was so proud. My mother practically ends up being the star. I mean, she was such an inspiration spiritually and in every way. She was such a darling woman. In the book when I come home and say, "Mom, someone said I was the most popular girl in Hollywood High." And she says, "Well, dear, you don't want to be popular. You want to be beloved."

You write about the original M--A--S--H script and how they kept adding to your character during filming.

I loved writing about that whole experience. So many people are so curious about who Robert Altman is: How did he work? Why is he so special? Why did stars come from all over, you know, the biggest stars in the world, wanting to work for Bob?

I was so despondent when he said he would give me the best part in the picture, and then I go home and I couldn't find it. I had this big breakdown in front of him, and when I was through he just casually said, "Well, why don't you take a chance? You could end up with something or nothing." I was like "Huh?" I had learning disabilities and didn't learn one thing in school.

He let you basically create the character of Hot Lips.

He did. He certainly saw things. That is the wonderful thing about Bob. I feel so special and we did remain such close friends always, he and his wife, Catherine, all through my life.

I mean, there was the shower scene. It was after that I was supposed to leave the film. I was huffing and puffing about why does she have to leave and this and that. He ran around the tent when I had that breakdown and said, "Oh my God, I had no idea you were going to do it like that. Now you can stay in the film." I did get nominated for an Academy Award for Hot Lips. That was pretty cool.

In the book, you say you made a lot of your choices from fear, not confidence. But what were you afraid of?

You know, not being up for the job in terms of career. Is that what you mean?

Both. career and personal.

Both. Why did I get so philosophic? Now I have to justify it. I think in looking back I didn't have an overview because I didn't have an education. No one knew about learning disabilities in those days. I didn't care because I always wanted to be an actress, and I always wanted to be a singer. In high school, I just sang, sang, sang. Finally, I got up the courage to join an acting class in high school and got to play the mom. But I was fat, in my mind, and I didn't want to be. I didn't think I was attractive enough. I had all these really shallow values [laughing] when you think about it.

Once I got into starring in film, well, I was always, always anxious starting a new role. I think some of the things I turned down, and I'm not sure this is in the book, but I was offered the part with Richard Chamberlain to do "Private Lives." At that time, maybe, I hadn't read it.

I didn't read. I had a teacher who said, "If you read these five books, you will be a brilliant actress" and I went home and cried for three days. I knew I wouldn't be able to read them. So I was just so intimidated, I turned it down for some other false reason, but fear was definitely behind it. Would I be good enough to do it? Other times it was just arrogance and stupidity [laughing].

You talk about your love of singing in the book. But you had a contract with a music label when you were 18 and you walked away. Why?

Because I had such low self-esteem and as much as I wanted these things -- I could sing at the drop of a hat in high school -- auditioning and not getting in, that was the first blow I ever had.

When it came time to actually put myself on the line and record with Verve records, the hottest jazz label, I think I was just scared to death. I don't know. It's taken me 40 years working on my music to get to the place where I am now. In acting class, there were other people there and I knew the other people, so if I got up on stage, even if I was kind of geek, it was safer. But I always wanted both.

Talk about learning disabilities, the minute I got nominated for an Academy Award, my inner monologue was: "OK, I've got that set, now I can work on my music [laughing]. What I would like to pass along to people developing careers and what I have learned in retrospect is that when opportunities like an Academy Award come to you, you have to build on it and let it grow. I just didn't have any sense of how you build a career.

In the book, you are candid about your marijuana use and your great therapist.

He is amazing. You all have to read about Milton [Wexler]. He really had insight. I always say, "I met the Queen, but I didn't have any insight."

So what do you think about marijuana becoming more acceptable and possibly becoming legal?

I had a lot of fun. I mean, I had a lot of fun with my friends, but ultimately it bit me in the ass. You know, addiction. I just didn't want to be attached to anything where I'm thinking, "OK, I can't smoke now. I'm working but next Sunday, I can." It was always in my thoughts.

I am so grateful to have that not be true today. I don't want to be addicted to anything, whether it's a serious addiction or anything that monopolizes my thinking like that. ... Marijuana is so much stronger than in my heyday of smoking, you know? Like everything else, it has escalated. I just didn't want to be in some kind of haze in life. That's just me. I don't mean it as a judgment on anybody else.

So you just stopped and that was it.

I stopped many times. I stopped for 11 years before I met my husband. Milton said, "If you lived a disciplined life for a year, you would have just about everything you want." I write in the book about making that movie with Tony Curtis in Israel. It was a special night, but you all are going to have to read about it. ... It demonstrated for me what was more fun.

Have you conquered the self-esteem issues?

Oh, a great deal, yes. A great deal. I am sort of enjoying myself today. With the music on stage, man, get out of my way! I have so much fun. I love the audiences so much. I am so grateful I have a husband who loves me and children, so I don't just have a life on the road with strangers. But I do love those ... I just love people. My dad loved people, my mom did, too. I mean we are people-people.

No matter what I feel like two minutes before a show, the minute I hit that note I'm in heaven. If you are not a singer, ladies and gentlemen, get out there and start singing! It is just the most fun. The irony is I am finally hip after all these years. They are re-releasing my first album from 1972 called "Roll With the Feeling" so I am finally hip, guys [laughs]. It was Janis Joplin influenced. Today I am singing from my point of view.

Patricia Sheridan: or 412-263-2613. Follow her on Twitter at


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