Uta Hagen, legendary actor and teacher, dies at 84


Uta Hagen, an inspiration to generations of actors at HB Studio on Bank St., where she taught with her late husband, Herbert Berghof, and two-time winner of the Tony Award for best actress in a Broadway play, died at the age of 84 on Wed. Jan. 14 at her home on Washington Sq.

She had been in ill health after suffering a stroke in 2001, but continued teaching until last year.

Born in Göttingen, Germany, and raised in Madison, Wisc., where her father was a professor of art history at the University of Wisconsin and her mother an opera singer, she made her professional acting debut when she was 18 as Ophelia in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

Among her memorable roles in a theatrical career of nearly 70 years were Desdemona in “Othello,” with her then husband, José Ferrer, and Paul Robeson; Georgie in Clifford Odets’ “The Country Girl,” for which she won a Tony Award in 1950; and her signature role as Martha in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” winning her second Tony in 1962.

Jerry Tallmer, a columnist for The Villager who interviewed her several times during the past 10 years, recalled seeing her on Broadway as Desdemona in 1944 and at the Lucille Lortel Theatre on Christopher St. as Melanie Klein in “Mrs. Klein,” in 1998. “She was a gorgeous young woman then and still gorgeous 54 years later,” Tallmer said. “The last time I interviewed her, she said, ‘I seem to get rediscovered every 10 years,’ ” Tallmer recalled.

She was a revered teacher at HB Studio, founded by Berghof in 1945, located first on W. 16th St. and then at 120 Bank St., where it has been for more than 40 years. As a teacher, she followed the studio’s interpretation of Stanislavsky’s Method and wrote two acclaimed books on acting, “A Challenge for the Actor” and “Respect for Acting.” In her classes, for which students had to audition, she insisted that actors must be truthful, spontaneous and adjust to the circumstances of the moment.

Students remember her for being demanding and a stickler for punctuality. She was a wonderful cook, an inveterate smoker and the doting owner of a succession of little dogs. “I’ve been smoking since I was 14,” she once told Tallmer.

Geraldine Page, Jason Robards, Jr., and Matthew Broderick are among her many students who achieved prominence. She acted in only a few films; “The Boys from Brazil,” with Laurence Olivier, is the best known.

She admired the Lunts (Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontaine) and Laurette Taylor for their ability to give fresh performances every time over long runs. Indeed, she played with the Lunts as Nina in Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” in her Broadway debut. A year later, she met Ferrer when both were acting in a summer theater in Ridgefield, Conn., and married him a short while later. The marriage ended in divorce in 1948. Ferrer died in 1992.

In 1951, she married Berghof, whom she met in 1947 while both were acting in a play directed by Harold Clurman, an important influence in her artistic development. Berghof died in 1990.

In 1948, she played Blanche Dubois in the national company of Tennessee Williams’ “Streetcar Named Desire,” and followed Jessica Tandy in the role on Broadway. She played the role with Marlon Brando, Anthony Quinn, Ralph Meeker, Richard Kiley and Jack Palance. In 1949, she played the lead in George Bernard Shaw’s “St. Joan.”

Blacklisted in the 1950s, she was unable to play in movies, television or in national tours, but continued to teach. Nevertheless, her most famous role came in 1962 when the producers of Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” offered her the part of Martha. With Arthur Hill as George, who also won a Tony, she continued to star in the play on Broadway and in London in 1964.

She played the lead in Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” in 1968 and later in Shaw’s “You Never Can Tell” and “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.” At the Lortell she starred in Nicholas Wright’s “Mrs. Klein” and followed that with Donald Margulies’ “Collected Stories.” At the age of 80 in 1999, she played Martha once more in a staged reading on Broadway for a single performance to benefit the HB Playwrights’ Foundation. The reading featured Jonathan Pryce as George and Matthew Broderick and Mia Farrow playing Nick and Honey. Despite Hagen’s misgivings about playing the part of Martha nearly 40 years after her initial triumph, “the intervening years passed like a cloud,” said Mel Gussow in a New York Times article.

Hagen’s daughter by Ferrer, Leticia Ferrer, survives along with a granddaughter and a great-granddaughter. A memorial service is being planned for a date to be announced.

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