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Sally Kellerman on ‘MASH,’ mistakes and the men in her life

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Updated: July 1, 2013 6:05AM

Sally Kellerman, a 1970 Academy Award nominee for her role as “Hot Lips” Houlihan in Robert Altman’s iconic 1970 film “MASH,” laughed when asked what advice she would give to a young actress starting out in show business today.

“For starters I’d tell her to absolutely not follow my career path,” said the actress.In town recently to promote her new memoir, “Read My Lips: Stories of a Hollywood Life,” Kellerman is not hesitant to say “I made a lot of mistakes. Who hasn’t? While there are lots of things I would do all over again, I certainly know the big mistakes I made in my career, as well as my personal life, that I would not repeat if I had the chance.

“But you don’t have that opportunity in life. So, you simply try to learn from them and move on.”

The biggest error: not taking advantage of being hot in Hollywood right after her that Oscar nod.

Ignoring the advice of her agent — the superpowerful Sue Mengers — Kellerman insisted on touring with her band for three months, “assuming all these wonderful offers would be there waiting for me when I got back. Big mistake!”

Now Kellerman, 75, can laugh about one of those offers: a promised 10-page photo spread in Vogue magazine.

The actress also cringes when remembering “actually being in bed with Marlon Brando — in his prime — and refusing to have sex with him. Not once, but on two separate occasions!”

She let her concerns about “saving myself” win out rather than having a fling with Brando, then considered the sexiest man in Hollywood.

“Not surprisingly, he didn’t give me a third chance,” Kellerman says with a laugh.

† Among the more bizarre dating relationships she recounts in “Read My Lips,” is her apparently platonic friendship with Henry Kissinger.

It was during the height of the Vietnam War, and Kellerman had protested the war and was actively campaigning for George McGovern who was running against President Richard Nixon in the 1972 election.

“My friend [Oscar winner] Jennifer Jones, who at the time was married to [billionaire industrialist] Norton Simon, called me up and asked if I could be Henry’s date for a dinner party they were throwing.

“I said, ‘Jennifer! I’m working for McGovern. I’m opposed to everything he represents. I’d be embarrassed to be seen with him.’ After a brief pause, Jennifer then said, ‘Well, darling, would you at least consent to sitting next to him at dinner?’

“Of course, I couldn’t refuse her anything — and I did it.”

While Kellerman and Kissinger never did agree on politics, the actress said she did come to like the man during the few times they met over the next couple of years.

† Asked if she had received any negative feedback from the people she wrote about in her book, Kellerman chuckled again.

“Well, of those still alive … there was somebody I won’t name who cried because they were not in the book. And my oldest daughter, Claire, didn’t want to be in the book, because she is very private.

“I have to admit that it never occurred to me that while I was sharing all my stuff, I was also sharing other people’s stuff. But the main thing — I wanted to be completely honest and truly didn’t want to hurt anybody.”

In her book, and also in our recent Chicago conversation, Kellerman stressed that music remains the love of her life. She recently released an album of standards and is excited that her 1972 recording “Roll With a Feeling” is being re-released this summer.

“It’s from a time when I was so heavily influenced by Laura Nyro and Janis Joplin, who I consider the Adele and Amy Winehouse of my generation.

“Frankly, I always simply wanted to be another Billie Holiday, just without the drugs.”

† After her acclaimed turn as “Hot Lips” Houlihan, the role was assumed by Loretta Swit for the “MASH” TV series. Kellerman recalled, “I never wanted it. At that time, I was trying so hard to get out of television and do movies and, of course, tour singing with my band and making music. … When ‘MASH’ was into its 11th season, I thought, ‘What have I done?! They’re all rich!’ … But no, I seriously have never regretted not doing it.”

† Circling back to the advice she’d give a young actress, Kellerman was adamant. “Go to class. I know it’s old-fashioned, but I say, ‘Do plays.’ Work at it. If you’re good you can have a long career.

“Sure, there’s instant stardom that comes from being on some reality show or perhaps getting lucky with a hit sitcom early on. But if you’re good — really good — and continue to work at it and hone your craft, you can give yourself longevity.”

Not bad advice from a woman who has had a 50-year career in show business ranging from films to TV to music.

“Some of us just won’t give up,” Kellerman said with a laugh. “I’m sure one of them, as you can tell.”

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