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Friday, September 3, 2010

Deeper Dish with Sally Kellerman

I first became a fan of Sally Kellerman when I was teenager, and my parents took me to see the 1980 film, Serial, in which the actress hilariously plays one of Tuesday Weld's consciousness-raising friends. Since then I've enjoyed her in such movies as Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972), Slither (1973), Welcome to L.A. (1976), A Little Romance (1979), Foxes (1980), Back to School (1986) and, of course, Robert Altman's 1970 satirical dark comedy, MASH, in which her character, Major "Hot Lips" Houlihan, has a memorable shower scene. This performance earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.

Sally's many television performances include such series as My Three Sons, The Outer Limits, That Girl, Centennial, Columbo, and the second pilot episode of Star Trek. She was also Holly Golightly's friend, Mag Wildwood, in the 1966 stage musical of Breakfast at Tiffany's, which only played four previews on Broadway before closing. And her sultry voice has always been quite recognizable in her commercials for Hidden Valley salad dressing and Milky Way candy bars over the years.

Besides her acting career - and her husband and three children - Sally's main passion in life has been her love of music and singing which she has been doing since she was a child. Under contract with Verve Records at the age of 18, she later recorded her well-reviewed debut album, Roll With The Feelin', in 1972. And now she's back with a new CD, Sally, a mix of jazzy blues and adult standards that was released last year to great acclaim. If you live in New York, you can see her perform her wonderfully-titled show, Sally Kellerman - Hot Lips to Cool Blues, at the Metropolitan Room this Sunday, September 5, and Thursday, September 9. And she will also be attending a screening of MASH at Lincoln Center tomorrow night (September 4) as part of the 75th anniversary celebration of 20th Century Fox. A Q&A will follow with her, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt and Robert Altman's widow, Kathryn Reed Altman.

I'm not the only gay guy who adores Sally Kellerman, who is an ardent supporter of gay rights and gay marriage. She is just an all-around groovy gal who continues to have a fascinating career - and I am so thrilled and honored to have her here on the Dish to discuss her life and answer a few pop culture questions.

Let’s begin with your show, Sally Kellerman – Hot Lips to Cool Blues.  How would you describe the evening?
We call it the anti-show – we’ve got no rules, just some good times. I just love these audiences. I don’t know what it is or what happens, but somehow people are always chuckling - and I think they leave happier than when they came in. So that’s a really good feeling.

What inspired you to record your new CD, Sally?
I’ve always been a singer – always, always, always since the beginning of time until now. I was under contract with Verve right out of high school, but my first real recording was in the early ‘70s – a Janis Joplin-influenced, soulful kind of thing.  Bobby Womack and Barry Manilow have produced singles or half-albums for me over the years, and I have a couple of other CDs that we produced ourselves – and another one that we just finished. But this is thrilling. I’ve always worked on my music all along - I’ve never stopped. I was never going to quit until it became something that was second nature to me. It just took me a little longer than I thought. Someone brought Val Garay into the little club one night where I was working here in L.A. – and he just kept coming and coming. The next thing you know we went into a studio and made a CD. And he’s a brilliant producer. It’s just so classic the way he produced it. He said, “We’re making a timeless record,” and I didn’t quite know what that meant. But it’s so beautifully done - and I’m so proud of it.

How did you choose the songs on your CD?
That’s kind of a miracle the way that happens. I don’t write songs so for years after my first album and in between these other recording experiences I had, I’d sing standards. Then the band I was working with at the Roxy for a year kept saying, “With your voice, why aren’t you singing the blues?” So one day I played them my first album, and they said, “We knew it, man.” So my keyboard guy Chris Caswell started writing for me. And then I’d be some place and some guy would come up to me and say, “Hey, I have a song that would be great for you” – and it was.

How did you end up with a recording contract with Verve Records when you were 18?
One of my best friends knew Norman Granz [the founder of Verve] – and a lot of people that I went to high school with were singers. The Four Preps were there and a young piano player named Lincoln Mayorga - last time I saw him he was with Quincy Jones. So when we were in high school together, we would go into my living room on a little tape deck and record. And the next thing you know my friend said, “Hey, I love the way you sing and I know Norman Granz at Verve Records.” So Barney Kessel signed me years ago, but I don’t know what happened and why I didn’t end up recording. I was just so shy with not a lot of self-esteem. I was actually scared. I always wanted both – I needed to be a singer and I needed to be an actress. And acting kind of took hold – and in acting class you could do it with other people. I just didn’t understand that in music you were with the band and that was the great part of it.

What was the most memorable moment for you during the production of the stage musical, Breakfast at Tiffany's?
Oh my God, that was the most amazing experience. It was five months – a month in Boston, a month in Philadelphia, the audiences loved it. It was Truman Capote, Abe Burrows, Robert Merrill, Mary and Dick [Richard Chamberlain]. I was Mary’s standby. I met [producer] David Merrick the day that he offered it to Mary Tyler Moore. At a meeting he said, “Why do you think you can do this?” And I said, “I just know I could.” “Have you ever done a musical?” “No, but I know I could.” “Well, I offered it to Mary Tyler Moore and if she doesn’t take it, then I’ll let you audition.” And I said, “Okay.” And then she did take it, so he said I could be the understudy and play Mag Wildwood. The whole experience was just fascinating.

As Mary’s standby, did you ever go on as Holly?
No.  I was going to get to go on for three months the second year, but when Abe Burrows left and Edward Albee took over, it became a whole other show. It was a disaster. It had already been sold out for a whole year. If we’d stayed with Abe Burrows’ show, it would’ve been a commercial success. It was a lot of work. Not so much for me since I just had two or three songs, but I learned the show immediately – my part and Holly. I was excited about going on.

How did you get cast in MASH as "Hot Lips" Houlihan?
Someone just said, “You should go for this movie and the part of Lt. Dish.” I decided I better wear red lips if I was going to be Lt. Dish. So I went to a meeting and I was sitting there and Bob Altman said, “I’ll give you the best part in the movie – 'Hot Lips'." I was so excited. Then I went out and I could hardly find her in the script. So I went back to see him and said why couldn’t she do this or that. And he said, “Why couldn’t she? And why don’t you take a chance and end up with something or nothing.” I come from television where you could never change a word, but that’s how it happened. So easy – just the way I like it. Somebody sees something in you and gives you that part. Much more fun than having to audition.

Is it true that you were offered the role of "Hot Lips" in the TV series?
I don’t have a clue. I had managers and agents and I’d just got nominated for an Academy Award and I was being offered all these movies. So I assumed I was – I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t have offered it to me. I didn’t want it though – I wanted to do movies and get a band and go on the road.

Is there any role that you were offered over the years that you regret turning down?
The thing that I was sorry about was that I didn’t understand or have an overview of how you build careers, so when everything was coming to me and being offered to me – and because my music was always a passion – I turned them down. My husband called me “The Invisible Achiever” - but I want to be visible now. I’m not interested in being invisible anymore. But there’s a couple – two or three roles. Two of them that I would’ve gotten to work with people I really adore and I turned them down for the stupidest reasons. Another one I would’ve made a lot of money – they kept offering me more and more and I went, “No, I’m not going to do it.”

Is it true that you were offered the role of Linda Rogo in The Poseidon Adventure?
That was the one with all the money. And Gene Hackman was in it – I love Gene Hackman – god, I think he’s so great - and Shelley Winters and all those people. I was just young. I was a struggling actress forever - and then you get nominated for an Academy Award and everyone is telling you you’re the greatest. And I’m afraid I fell for it at one point. I was a little arrogant – and not the sharpest tool in the shed when it came to career-building.

Now let’s discuss a few of your other television and film performances over the years. What’s the first thing that pops into your mind about:

Your 1957 film debut in Reform School Girl?
I was the butch who carried the tools. I don’t even know if I had any lines. When we went to the screening to see the movie and I came onscreen, everybody laughed. And it was a serious movie.

TV’s Star Trek?
Now let’s not laugh about that. I just went to a Star Trek convention – my first one – and signed autographs. That’s one of the gifts that keeps on giving – like MASH. I made a lot of movies and guest-starred on every TV show known to man from the ‘60s on up until I did MASH – but Star Trek is one of those that doesn’t go away. I had no idea that it was going to have the impact that it had – and that people would still be wanting to talk to me about it.

Slither with James Caan?
I loved doing that movie. I loved Jimmy so much. It was Howard Zieff’s first film. We were shooting outside in these beautiful locations – and I just loved that character. That was so much fun.

The 1973 film, Lost Horizon?
Well, let’s just put it to you this way, I loved Burt [Bacharach] and Hal [David]. I knew Burt before we did the picture. I’m very honored – no matter what they said about the film - to have worked with those guys. And Hal continued to be one of my biggest supporters musically – and he insisted I work with this piano player, Chris Caswell, that really has changed everything for me. Hey, let’s face it, I had five months with [choreographer] Hermes Pan learning how to dance. I became close friends with Liv Ullmann and all those wonderful people who were in the picture – Peter Finch and everyone. It wasn’t a successful film.  I wasn’t surprised because the script wasn’t anything - seven lines divided between 15 people or something like that. I had to kill myself with no motivation, no nothing, and we never really got any background on anybody.

Now it’s becoming something of a cult movie. There’s a theater in San Francisco I understand that’s playing it at midnight – kind of like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And only in the last two or three years people have come up to me - “Oh, my family and I play that every Christmas.” And at the Star Trek convention, there were a lot of people who asked about Lost Horizon.

Welcome to L.A.?
That was Alan Rudolph’s first picture. If this had happened in today’s world, I would’ve lost my home and everything else – like Kim Basinger when she lost that town because she walked off a picture. I had this manager – Stuart Cohen – that I loved so much. He was like my other dad - he took the sting out of everything – he was just one of my favorites. We were together 11 years - and then he died overnight. It was such a shock, such a loss, that I wanted to be with people I knew who cared about me. So I flew up to be with Bob Altman and his wife, Kathryn. I was set to star in a film with Lee Marvin, and I said “I’m not doing it.” And Bob said, “Do you want to do Welcome to L.A. for a dollar fifty?” And I was getting paid some nice bucks with Lee Marvin and I just said, “Yeah, I’ll do that”, so I just walked off the film and did Welcome to L.A. instead.

I loved Sissy Spacek – we had a couple of drinks together. She’s just so unique and wonderful. She was just so “God, kid, you look great, you should get these painter’s pants like mine.” She was darling, absolutely adorable and so talented.

I loved when my maid said – when we pulled over to the side of the road – “So I get it. So you’d like me to just put on my street clothes and pretend that I’m just your best friend.” And I said, “Would you?” And I loved the wedding ceremony – “You-ness, Me-ness, Us-ness, We-ness”. Pretty silly but really fun.

Back to School with Rodney Dangerfield?
Wasn’t that a lucky break? Because besides MASH, that’s the one people come up to me and say, “Call me when you got no class.” “Marlon Brando ballooned up nicely, pound for pound, one of our finest actors.” Oh, Rodney was funny.

Is it true that Harrison Ford worked for you when he supported himself as a carpenter?
Yeah, he worked in my den. He got Star Wars when he was working here. He did two pilots that didn’t sell - and I got my neighbor to hire him for something.  Then he came in one day and said, “Well, I was probably their last choice, but I’m going to do this picture with Alec Guinness.” And I said, “Oh, that’s nice. Good for you.” Next time I saw Harrison, he pulled up in this big Mercedes, and I said, “Harrison, I don’t have a handyman anymore” – and he said, “Yeah, I don’t either, but I know where you can get some tools cheap.” I’ve seen very little of him since then.

If you could go back and give your 19-year-old self a wise piece of advice, what would it be?
It would be to appreciate who I am and to enjoy my life and not be wasting all that time, worrying about things that don’t matter.

In high school I was:
A fatty – and I always knew I wanted to be an actress. I finally admitted this to my friends, and I played the mother in the play, Meet Me in St. Louis.

My favorite comfort food is:
Spaghetti, Mexican food and candy.

If I was stranded on a desert island for a year, I would want to listen to:
Diana Krall, Rod Stewart, Chris Botti and Sting.

A few of my favorite movies are:
All About Eve – and one that I’m loving is The Proposal with Sandra Bullock. I’ve seen that twice - so silly and fun.

If I was asked to choose the Sexiest Man Alive, it would be:
Well, it would have to be my husband – but besides him, I certainly like George Clooney – an obvious choice – but I’ll just go right to that. I Iike that Jon Hamm, too, he’s very attractive.

If I could have anyone in the world – living or dead – be a guest at my dinner party, I would invite the following three people:
My darling Jennifer Jones – one of my dearest friends. And I wouldn’t mind Marlon Brando.  I’d also like to have Stuart Cohen, my manager who died. He would make it such a cheerful, jolly evening.

What's next for Sally Kellerman?
More of the same. My twins are 21 – Jack and Hannah – and I have a grown daughter – so mothering is always in there no matter what. And I’m married to Jonathan Krane for 30 years – and it looks like we’re going for another 30 because no else will have us. I love what I’m doing, I love it so much. And it’s so important to me – this music – and I just love these audiences. I just love singing to them and connecting with them. And I hope to do some acting. I just played this Alzheimer’s patient who gets up in the middle of the night and sings “Sugar in My Bowl”. It kind of reinvigorated my love of acting. It’s an independent film called Night Club – we finished it about two months ago and they’re still in post-production. And I’m working on a book, which I backed into kicking and screaming. It will be out this time next year.

Thank you, Sally, for getting Deeper with us here on the Dish. To learn more about Sally Kellerman, check out her website, You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

To make reservations for Sally Kellerman - Hot Lips to Cool Blues at the Metropolitan Room (34 West 22nd St), call (212) 206-0440 or visit She'll be performing on Sunday, September 5, at 7 pm and Thursday, September 9, at 9:30 pm. Tickets are $20, and there is a two-drink minimum.

For tickets to the MASH screening tomorrow (September 4) at 6:45 pm at the Walter Reade Theater of Lincoln Center (165 West 65th St), click here.


TAREK said...

Great stuff, Marc! I've always liked her and didn't know a lot of what you printed. She was in Breakfast At Tiffany's onstage...had no idea!

Deep Dish said...

Thanks, Andrew. You should check out the 2001 studio recording of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" on CD in which Sally sings her songs from the show.

Anonymous said...

I am twenty-three years old, and since fourteen I have been obsessed. Her performances are ethereal I have always thought Sally would be a perfect candidate for a David Lynch film. She is leading lady material, not supporting. I took the chance of meeting her at Boston University promoting the fortieth screen anniversary of MASH. She was regal, elegant I was in a state of shock as my jaw dropped to the grown. I have a FB group which is in dedication to this wonderful lady. Please, join.

Marc said...

Hey, Krazy Daisy, thanks for your comment. I agree that Sally would be great in a David Lynch film. She is wonderful!