At 76, Hot Lips Houlihan is still a tease … Sally Kellerman, who received an Oscar nomination for her role in Robert Altman’s groundbreaking depiction of war in “M*A*S*H,” is speaking from her Los Angeles-area home on a recent morning. Instead of her normal Pilates routine, she’s talking Marlon Brando and sex.
“He was my hero as soon as I saw ‘Viva Zapata’ in junior high,” she recalls. “Then came ‘The Wild One,’ and I saw every one of his pictures from that moment on. … He had that seething sensuality. My life changed.”
Her crush was well known among her friends at Hollywood High: “I was kind of fat and everything. The rumor was he had dealt with a weight problem –– though, of course, he was skinny and gorgeous in his films –– but I thought he’d really understand me.”
One night, her dream was there for the taking.
“I was at a nightclub, Stan Getz was playing, and I knew the bouncer at the door. He took me in and said. ‘I’ll seat you right over here,’ and he sat me right down beside Marlon Brando. I couldn’t breathe. I was like a stone. It was dark, but I sat through two sets by Stan Getz without moving a muscle. At the end everyone was leaving and the lights came on and he was still sitting beside me. He looked at me and said, ‘So, what, are you an actress?’ … He asked me if I’d like to go for a ride, and my head was spinning. We got in his car and started driving. We’d gone about a fourth of a block and he reached over and touched my arm. I was 18 or 19, and I was real backward. I was not sophisticated. But we had rules. So I moved his hand away. He said, ‘I wouldn’t want to spoil a beautiful friendship.’ … He was hoping to get a quick roll in the hay. I was devastated, but at the same time so excited to have been in Marlon Brando’s car. I rushed to a phone booth and called my friends.”
A year or so later Kellerman was waiting tables at the iconic Sunset Strip coffeehouse Chez Paulette when Brando walked in. Their chemistry was rekindled, Kellerman says, leaving it at that.
“I can’t tell you whether we ended up in his bed or not,” she says. “For that you’ll have to read the book.”
Ah, yes, the book.
Kellerman has a new memoir, “Read My Lips” (Weinstein Books, $26), and her book-signing tour comes to South Florida this week for Wednesday-Thursday appearances benefiting the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival.
Published in April, “Read My Lips” offers a candid look at coming of age in a Hollywood much more carefree than it is today. Brando rolled around town in an old white sedan, Steve McQueen and Warren Beatty came and went at the Chez Paulette (“I waited on more movie stars than I worked with in my entire career,” Kellerman says), and Kellerman took acting classes “right out of high school” with Jack Nicholson.
“There was no paparazzi then. We all just felt so free,” Kellerman recalls.
Looking to break into films after some TV work (including a role in the “Star Trek” pilot) the young actress, in red lipstick, went to an audition where the director she’d never heard of promised: “I’m going to give you the best role in the picture, hot lips.”
Kellerman says shooting “M*A*S*H” with Robert Altman was filled with genuine embarrassment and tears (“The shower scene was humiliating,” she says), but Altman’s decision to keep the cameras rolling during those unscripted moments produced her best work.
“It was like going to summer camp with a genius,” Kellerman says. “I'm still close with Elliot Gould, Tom Skerritt… We had so much fun.”
After the success of “M*A*S*H” and another 1970 Altman release, “Brewster McCloud” (they later collaborated on the critically lauded “Prêt-à-Porter” in 1994), the young Kellerman mostly abandoned her acting career to return to her first love, singing. At 18, Kellerman had been offered a contract with the prestigious Verve Records jazz label.
“I wanted to be Billie Holiday without the drugs,” Kellerman recalls, with a laugh.
While she eventually returned to making movies, singing is a passion that the actress has pursued ever since. Kellerman drops names of influences and collaborators with ease: Muscle Shoals, Burt Bacharach, Bobby Womack, Mike Stoller and Donald Fagen. Her most recent album is the 2009 jazzy-blues release, “Sally,” and she continues to perform on tour.
“Honey, I’ve almost made it,” she cracks. “I just need to live longer.”
IF YOU GO
At 11:30 a.m. Wednesday Sally Kellerman will host a luncheon for Entre Nous, the FLIFF fundraising organization, at the Hyatt Regency Pier Sixty-Six (2301 SE 17th St., Fort Lauderdale). Advance tickets: $60.
At 6 p.m. Wednesday she will be receive a FLIFF Lifetime Achievement Award at Cinema Paradiso (503 SE Sixth St., Fort Lauderdale) in an evening that includes a montage of her work, an audience Q&A moderated by film historian Foster Hirsch, followed by a reception and a book-signing in the courtyard. Tickets: $10, $8 seniors/students, $6 members.
On Thursday at 5:30 p.m., Kellerman will meet fans and sign books at a fundraiser for the new Hollywood outpost of Cinema Paradiso at Lola's On Harrison restaurant (2032 Harrison St., Hollywood). Tickets: $20, includes two drinks and hors d'oeuvres.
Tickets: For advance tickets and information, go to FLIFF.com or call 954-760-9898 ext. 111.