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Classic Hollywood: Sally Kellerman tells starry tales

Sally KellermanMASH (tv program)Nashville (tv program)Korean War (1950-1953)Louis JourdanJennifer JonesRobert Walker

Sally Kellerman does a mean Marlon Brando.

"Sally, don't you recognize me or are you playing it cool?" she mumbles in her best brooding tough guy, mimicking one conversation with the actor when, as a struggling actress, she made ends meet by working as a waitress in a Hollywood eatery in the late '50s. ("I waited on more stars than I worked with in my entire career," she adds.)

But that's not where her connection to Brando started. Kellerman, who came to fame as the rigid Korean War nurse Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan in Robert Altman's 1970 comedy classic "MASH," writes in her new autobiography "Read My Lips: Stories of a Hollywood Life" about how she had a crush on Brando as a shy, overweight teenager at Hollywood High.

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"I felt so geeky," she says. "I heard Brando struggled with his weight, and I thought he would understand me. I saw every one of his pictures at least seven times."

Out of high school and driving down Hollywood Boulevard one day, she says, "I look over and in this old white, beat-up car was Marlon Brando. I said, 'It can't be him! Why isn't he in a limo?'"

Later, Kellerman kept running into Brando and got to know him, even at one point fighting off his advances after he'd invited her to his home. "That was a mistake," she says, laughing.

Relaxing in the family room of the comfortable Hollywood Hills home she shares with her husband of 33 years, producer Jonathan D. Krane, she began to cry softly as she remembered her deep friendship with Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Jones ("The Song of Bernadette"), who she met in the 1960s through Jones' son Robert Walker Jr.

"The first dinner party she invited me to, I walk in and she says, 'Oh, darling, I want you to meet some friends of mine.' It was Ingrid Bergman, Deborah Kerr, Simone Signoret, Yves Montand, Louis Jourdan and his wife, and Pia Lindström. That was the dinner. She was 100% in my corner. She organized our wedding and our re-nuptials 20 years later. I went to see her a lot. She was so beautiful."

"Psycho" screenwriter Joseph Stefano was also in her corner early in her career after he saw her in Los Angeles in two plays. "He said, 'I saw you in a play six months ago and the growth is amazing. I'm going to send you a script.' As he drove away, I turned to my friend and said, 'I'll be in the restaurant for the rest of my life.'"

But Stefano was true to his word. He soon sent her a script for his classic ABC sci-fi series "The Outer Limits" with the note, "the part is Ingrid and the magic is yours."

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It was Jeff Corey who gave Kellerman, 75, "a life." She had attended Corey's acting class with good friend Jack Nicholson and other up-and-comers more than 50 years ago now. "He really got me right away and gave me a sense that I was really talented," she says. "He knew I didn't have any self-esteem."

And then there's Altman, who changed Kellerman's career when he cast her as Hot Lips. They also worked together in 1970's "Brewster McCloud" and 1994's "Pret-a-Porter."

"I loved him so," she said.

But after receiving her supporting actress Oscar nomination for "MASH," Kellerman turned down all film offers — much to the chagrin of her management team — to concentrate on her singing career.

One day, Altman called her to see if she wanted to be in his 1975 masterpiece "Nashville."

"Only if the part is good," she told him. And he hung up. "'Nashville' was really great without me," she says, having since made her peace with it. "I missed several opportunities with Bob," she notes of the director.

Beyond her colorful tales of Hollywood, she also writes about a failed first marriage, career ups and downs, marijuana addiction and her roller-coaster of a marriage to Krane.

"Jonathan said we are still together because no one else will ever have us," she says with a smile.

She and Krane have three children — Claire, her sister's child whom she adopted in the 1970s, and twins Jack and Hanna. Kellerman was 52 when they were adopted.

"A friend said, 'All your friends think you're crazy,'" she says about being a late-in-life mom. "I said, 'You're kidding.' I never had a sense of my age, and I don't intend to."

Are you an aficionado of iconic Hollywood? Like us on Facebook and go to the Classic Hollywood landing page to get more Times coverage.

susan.king@latimes.com

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Sally KellermanMASH (tv program)Nashville (tv program)Korean War (1950-1953)Louis JourdanJennifer JonesRobert Walker
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