Uta Hagen, 1919-2004

Respect for a master actor and teacher who inspired others through the unmatched sublimity of her example

Nothing was casual about this love. It was the passionate, savage, and all-consuming kind. Love that is born from belief. Belief that the theater is a gift we have given ourselves, to explore, discover, understand, and celebrate the mystery of being alive. And acting, as I came to understand what Uta aspired to onstage, was in T.S. Eliot's words "a condition of complete simplicity (costing not less than everything)." I've never worked with anyone who worked harder, and all the work was about getting to that place. Her extraordinary attention to detail, where everything onstage and off had a specific significance, was her way of achieving freedom. "You have to know everything to be completely free," was the mantra I learned as I watched her work.

Since her stroke in the fall of 2001, Uta had not been well, and for those of us who were with her through those last two years, her death was not a surprise. But even so, we are left with the feeling that this great and by the end somewhat ravaged ship has pulled away from the shore and headed out to sea. In this age of immediate news, instant success, and momentary stardom, how easily we lose touch with the sense that as artists, who we are and what we do is only a small chapter in a much greater history. Uta carried the substance of that history in her soul. She first worked for Eva Le Gallienne and the Lunts, so she is one of the last to come from that time when actors were able to consider a life in the theater to be the highest calling. And she bore that in her bones every time she stepped onstage.

Working with her changed you as an artist because the work was never done. She never said a line the same way twice; it was always in response to what had just been said. And so much of what we watched was the way she listened. She felt fear but her acting was fearless. She wanted to find that magic edge of being so completely in the story that she wouldn't know or be thinking about what happens next. Uta loved long runs. She loved sharing with an audience all that she had become in the course of rehearsing a play and, with their new participation, constantly surprising them.

Photo: Jack Mitchell

No one has influenced the quality of acting in this country, and maybe even around the world, the way Uta Hagen has, as an actor, a teacher, and a writer. No other artist has had the talent, passion, and commitment she had for doing all three. So now those simple words, "I love to act," carry the weight of a full life's work. And as we watch that vessel slip out to sea, let us know, let us love as she loved, and most of all, as we work, let us remember.

William Carden

Uta Hagen was my acting teacher for several years when I first moved to New York in the mid '70s. She remained an extraordinary influence and inspiration to me throughout my career. Every role I have ever portrayed on film, TV, or on the stage has Uta's technique all over it. I still look over those copious notes I took in her class; I still reread parts of her books before every job I take. I have such vivid memories of going to her class—lugging my props on the subway down to HB Studios—trying so hard to impress her, to please her. I'll never forget finally getting her ultimate approval—her "no criticism" accompanied by a light-filled joyous smile. When that happened, I left the class on top of the world. No amount of rejection or lack of messages on my answering service could shake the high. Her class was the one true highlight of the whole week during those early days in New York City, struggling as a waitress/agentless actress.

I never missed her performances on stage. She completely practiced what she preached—all that homework, preparation and specific personalization allowed her the full freedom, spontaneity and aliveness that she taught us in her classes. She was my teacher, my mentor, my constant source of inspiration and my friend—I, and so many others, will miss her deeply. She was a force in so many people's lives—the ferocity of her talent that was made even greater by the generosity of her heart.

Christine Lahti

Uta Hagen was a great and defining force in the American theater. She was a remarkable actress and teacher of acting, uncompromising in her beliefs. She was my friend, and I will miss her very much.

Horton Foote

Ms. Hagen had a great capacity to have fun. She rarely went to dinner parties, but once in a while she would break loose. About 10 years ago, on Halloween, I was in New York doing promotion for a television show. They sent a stretch limo and I was riding down Fifth Avenue to pick her up at her home on Washington Square. At 10th Street and Fifth Avenue there was a police block; the barricades were up for the parade. I said, "But this car is for Uta Hagen, my teacher." The next thing I knew, I had a motorcycle escort to Ms. Hagen's apartment. So I called her and said, "Ms. Hagen," (I always called her Ms. Hagen), "lean out the window, there's something coming." We went to her favorite restaurant uptown before the opera. She had several vodkas, I had several bourbon manhattans. At the end of the meal, the man who owns the restaurant said that Ms. Hagen was his guest because the bartender was her pupil, as were the hatcheck girl and several of the waiters and waitresses. They wouldn't let us even leave a tip. So we got back in the car and went to the Metropolitan Opera. At the box office, I was told that the tickets were free, because "we heard from the press agent that Ms. Hagen was to be your guest." We took two acts of Il Trovatore. It wasn't very good. The second act featured a staircase from here to infinity. Everyone had armor on, and Ms. Hagen said to me, "You'd think you'd hear one clink." We went up to the Grand Tier and sat at the bar for two hours because we had to wait for the car. We kept drinking for free because the bartender was one of her pupils. When the car came at 11:15 it was covered in flowers—on the backseat, the floor, the back window. The chauffeur explained that his sister, Kate Mulgrew, had been her student and had learned so much from her. He also wouldn't accept so much as a tip at the end of the night. After stopping off at the Tunnel and Limelight (where again we weren't allowed to pay for anything), we got back to her apartment around 3 a.m. and were sitting in her kitchen having a nightcap. I sat there and looked at this woman and said, "Ms. Hagen, you are the richest woman I know. We went out for 10 hours in New York City and it didn't cost us a penny. Golda Meir, Mother Teresa, and Eleanor Roosevelt would have had trouble doing what you did tonight."

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