Yesterday, February 24th 2022, was a particularly hard day. I woke to see the televised Russian invasion of Ukraine, watched as LGBTQ+ rights were squashed by Florida lawmakers, and, to top it all off, I’d heard that actress Sally Kellerman, a presence in TV and film for as long as I can remember, passed away at age 84 after a heartbreaking battle with dementia. Working almost right up until her death (IMDb listed projects of hers in post as well as pre-production), Kellerman had a body of work spanning over 60 years. In fact, many of my earliest memories of watching TV involved Kellerman’s image onscreen. A tall blonde with a broad smile, Kellerman was certainly attractive, but she also brought a deep undercurrent of intelligence to many of her roles. In an age where many actresses were playing secretaries, girlfriends and housewives, I remember seeing Kellerman cast in professional roles; playing astronauts, army officers and other people of influence. This was somewhat rare in the pre-Mary Tyler Moore 1960s.
Two performances of hers I distinctly recall were in the first season of the short-lived but groundbreaking 1960s anthology sci-fi series, “The Outer Limits” (1963-1964). In “The Human Factor” (1963), the first of her two appearances on the show, Kellerman played administrative assistant, Ingrid Larkin, who’s posted to a remote military base in Greenland. The twentysomething Larkin is nursing an unrequited crush on brilliant, guilt-ridden engineer, Major Roger Brothers (Harry Guardino), who’s working on a machine that can connect two minds via electronic telepathy. While playing the ‘secretary nursing a secret crush’ may not have seemed terribly progressive (even for the time), Kellerman gave her character a vulnerability, as well as a burning intellect that easily made her the equal of any male officer on the base. “The Human Factor” may not have been one of the series’ best, but Kellerman was soon called back to the show for a very different role later on…
Kellerman’s second character on the series may not have been a professional, but she was the impetus behind her scientist husband’s ambitions in the classic “Outer Limits” episode, “The Bellero Shield” (1964). Married to brilliant scientist, Richard Bellero (Martin Landau), Judith Bellero is frustrated by her husband’s lack of appetite for his wealthy father’s business. When a teleported alien (John Hoyt) is trapped within her husband’s laboratory, Judith notices its peculiar electronic forcefield which leaves it invulnerable to attack. Realizing such a device could be the key to her husband’s financial success, Judith’s ambition kicks into overdrive and she begins to view their extraterrestrial ‘guest’ as a proverbial goose for laying some golden eggs.
When the benign alien fails to give Judith what she wants, she kills it with one of its own laser weapons during an unguarded moment–taking its forcefield controller, but without fully understanding the device. Soon, she is trapped within the alien’s forcefield without a means of escape. Richard eventually manages to free her, but it’s too late; the power-hungry Judith has been driven mad (like Ophelia from “Hamlet”) and is now trapped in an imaginary version of the shield–her guilt-ridden mind unable to escape it. The sight of Kellerman as Judith, frantically pounding on imaginary walls within her husband’s lab, is one of the most unsettling and haunting performances in a series filled with them.
One of Kellerman’s most famous TV roles was undoubtedly the second pilot episode for Star Trek, the classic episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (1966; filmed in 1965). Shown out of order when Star Trek was first aired, the second pilot (third broadcast episode) saw Captain Kirk (William Shatner), half-Vulcanian First Officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and a not-quite settled crew of the USS Enterprise (McCoy and Uhura weren’t yet cast) headed to explore the literal outer rim of our galaxy, “where no man has gone before” (this was before 1987’s Next Generation amended the captain’s intro to the more-inclusive “where no one…”).
In the story, Kellerman played ship’s psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Dehner, a forerunner to the later Counselor Troi. Dehner’s assignment aboard the ship was to study crew reactions during emergencies. Approaching galaxy’s end, the ship beams aboard an old-style disaster beacon launched from the lost starship SS Valiant, which attempted the same course 200 years earlier. Decoding the Valiant’s logs, Spock determines the ship encountered a strange force which caused a surviving crewman to develop strange, dangerous psionic abilities. Spock determines that the captain of the Valiant was, for reasons unknown, forced to destroy his own ship. Undaunted by the risks, Kirk immediately resumes their course for the “galactic barrier”; a vast, hot-pink swath of negative energy directly ahead of the approaching starship Enterprise…
Note: On the very day of Kellerman’s passing, “Star Trek: Discovery” unveiled a new episode called “The Galactic Barrier,” which revisits Star Trek’s familiar energy barrier at the rim of our galaxy. For some reason, traversing the barrier suddenly seems a lot more difficult now in Discovery’s 32nd century than it was in the 2260s…
After their own disastrous plunge into the barrier, a now-disabled starship Enterprise is forced to turn back at impulse power. The crippling encounter left nine crewmen dead, with two rendered unconscious–Dr. Dehner, and Kirk’s longtime friend and helmsman, Lt. Commander Gary Mitchell (Gary Lockwood). Mitchell awakens with glowing eyes, and over time, he develops increasingly dangerous powers, including telekinesis, telepathy, and eventually, matter/energy transmutation. Spock confides to Kirk that Mitchell is now a danger to the ship, citing the Valiant’s forced self-destruction as precedent. Kirk intends to strand Gary on the automated mining colony of Delta Vega.
After beaming Mitchell down with a landing party that includes psychiatrist Dehner, Kirk realizes that no prison or planet will be able to contain the godlike Mitchell for much longer. Things are further complicated when Dehner’s own delayed-reaction psionic abilities are suddenly awakened. After Mitchell kills former shipmate Lee Kelso using telekinesis, he and Dehner escape confinement. The power-mad Mitchell plans to recreate Delta Vega as a new Eden… until Kirk appears, packing a phaser rifle. Making a last appeal to former psychiatrist Dehner, Kirk eventually convinces her that Mitchell is dangerous. Summoning her own powers to stop Gary, she is mortally wounded following his retaliatory attack. Fortunately, her sacrifice gives Kirk just enough time to destroy Mitchell by using his phaser rifle to drop a large, freshly-bisected boulder onto the distracted demigod.
Despite the fact that Kellerman’s role was only a ‘guest appearance,’ “Where No Man Has Gone Before” remains one of her most widely remembered roles, and deservedly so. The character of Dr. Dehner is both a psychiatrist and a military officer–not bad for a then-28 year old Sally Kellerman. “Where No Man…” was also the pilot that eventually sold NBC on the series, following the failure of Trek’s first pilot, “The Cage”–which, interestingly enough, is finally going to series (57 years later) with Paramount+’s own “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds,” coming in May. As Kellerman used to kiddingly boast at conventions, she was responsible for finally selling Star Trek…
Another sci-fi role came Kellerman’s way in the cult TV classic, “The Invaders” (1967-1968). The series saw lone architect David Vincent (Roy Thinnes) traveling around the world searching for more evidence of the malevolent humanoid alien invaders whom he has previously encountered. Every week, David would find fresh clues and new allies, only to suffer setbacks which spur him on the following week. While admittedly formulaic, “The Invaders” featured many colorful guest stars, including Sally Kellerman, who played Laura Crowell, the wife of a doctor who has learned of the aliens’ radically differing anatomy following an emergency x-ray. Initially offering to help David, Crowell soon recants, following pressure from the invaders themselves. Kellerman’s character was a classic example of the gray morality in which David’s allies are often forced to live.
Perhaps the single biggest role for Kellerman was in Robert Altman’s sly, Korean War-set dark comedy, “MASH” (1970), which would spawn a hugely successfully (largely recast) TV series afterward (1972-1983). Kellerman played the uptight, hypocritical head nurse Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, freshly transferred to the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the thick of the Korean War in the early 1950s. After admonishing the lack of discipline among the doctors and staff, Maj. Houlihan is soon drawn into her own illicit affair with married, ‘god-fearing’ equally-hypocritical Maj. Frank Burns (Robert Duvall). Draftee doctors Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce (Donald Sutherland), “Trapper” John McIntyre (Elliott Gould) and Augustus Bedford “Duke” Forrest (Tom Skerritt) proceed to make Houlihan’s life a living hell, including various sexual humiliations that don’t play nearly as ‘funny’ today. Following the Section 8 departure of Frank Burns, “Hot Lips” eventually loosens up and becomes one of the gang, foreshadowing the trajectory of her TV incarnation as well. Kellerman’s version of Houlihan was the clear prototype for the TV version, which was beautifully evolved over 11 seasons by multiple Emmy-winner Loretta Swit’s sensitive portrayal.
Note: I am a huge fan of the MASH movie and TV series; I even acted in a community theater version of MASH many years ago in my youth. However, I could never abide (then and now) the various ways the 4077’s doctors used to sexually taunt, tease and torment Major Houlihan. Yes, Houlihan was a certified hypocrite, but that doesn’t leave her, or any person, open to sexual assault–both in language or practical jokes, such as exposing her to the entire camp during a shower. Not cool.
Kellerman would amass many other roles, both in dramas and comedies (particularly for 1986’s Rodney Dangerfield vehicle “Back to School”), but I was more pleasantly surprised to see her return to the sci-fi/fantasy arena in “Exorcism,” a 1990 episode of “The Ray Bradbury Theatre” (1985-1992); a cable anthology series all based on short stories by my favorite sci-fi/fantasy author, Ray Bradbury. In the memorable half-hour segment, Kellerman played local eccentric Clara Goodwater, who leads the local “Ladies’ Honeysuckle Harmony Lodge.” Her jealous rivals blame Clara’s charm and success within the town on witchcraft, and plan to ‘exorcise’ her during a meeting in the episode’s satirical climax. As with most Bradbury stories, sly social commentary is woven in with oddness and atmosphere. Kellerman was allowed to cut loose with her deliberately over-the-top performance in the segment.
Meeting Sally Kellerman, Las Vegas, August 4th, 2016
I had the good fortune to meet Sally Kellerman on August 4th, 2016, at the 50th annual Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas, Nevada. I’d seen her at other conventions, and was determined to meet her and get her autograph this time. My tenacity paid off, as I waited in a long queue, eventually getting my chance. When we finally met, she beamed her wide smile as she saw my Star Trek book, which contained old photographs from her appearance in Star Trek’s second pilot. She graciously allowed me to take her photo, we shook hands, I thanked her, and left (convention pro-tip; never overstay your meet-and-greet, as many other people are waiting behind you to have theirs). As with most celebrities I’ve met over the last 20-odd years at conventions, the enormity of whom I’d just encountered didn’t fully hit me until much later on. I don’t usually get starstruck in the moment–it’s more of a delayed response, weeks or even years after the fact.
What I didn’t know in that moment–and found out later on at the event–was that Kellerman agreed to do the autograph signing a mere three days after her husband had passed away. I still remember my wife and I sharing an elevator with Kellerman and several others after the signing. After pressing her room floor button, her shoulders slumped tiredly, and she appeared to be drained. Some of that I would attribute to the normal exhaustion that comes after signing your name for hundreds of eager fans, but now I realize that the poor woman had just lost her husband days before, but was determined to carry on for her fans. I’ve seen many guests cancel convention appearances at the last minute for various reasons (transportation issues, illnesses, etc), but here was Sally Kellerman, signing autographs and posing with her trademark smile, so soon after suffering what I could only imagine was a devastating loss–her husband of 36 years. That is now my strongest memory of the late Sally Kellerman–her great resolve, even during personal anguish. A professional to the very end.
Sally Kellerman, June 2nd, 1937- February 24th, 2022.
Stay Strong, Stay Safe.
With the invasion into sovereign Ukraine, here’s hoping that the Ukrainian people will see daylight from this horrific nightmare. Wishing Ukraine all necessary strength to persevere, and that this hideous aggression by Vladimir Putin ends sooner than later. Meanwhile, the current number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States is over 939,000 (over 5.8 million worldwide) as of this writing, so please continue to wear masks (N-95/KN-95 masks are optimal), practice safe-distancing and get vaccinated as soon as possible to minimize infections and protect your loved ones (booster shots are available everywhere).
In these challenging times, be safe and stay strong!
7 Comments Add yours
Very nice sendoff for a classy lady … Being a huge Invaders fan, and having a pretty liberal Aunt, I was “Exposed” to Kellerman’s acting at a younger age then I should have …..I don’t think there are too many 10 year olds that can say they saw MASH when it first was in theatres ! I remember her role as the De-winged angel / Fairy Godmother in Brewster Mcloud, another Movie I saw with my Aunt ………… I hate to say this in the same comment as Sally’s, but I keep seeing the face of Benito Mussolini every time I see Putin…perhaps he will get his just dues as Italy’s strongman got his ……..
He’s Benito Mussolini without the chin.
Little creep; sooner the world is free of him, the better.
What a wonderful tribute to an unforgettable actress. I thought I was the only one who took her passing so profoundly. Those roles are forever in my memory. She had a that “it” quality. An elegant intelligence in her acting and appearance. And that lovely voice used in so many voiceovers I can’t begin to count. Thank you for giving my grief a chance to be recognized and shared.
Thank you peisley, for your heartfelt comment! Deeply appreciated.
I wish that Sally Kellerman could have stayed on in Star Trek as Dr. Elizabeth Dehner because she was a very likeable character thanks to Sally’s performance. R.I.P., Sally.
Thank you for this tribute to her.
Thank you for the kind words, and for reading. Much appreciated!
You’re very welcome.