Uta Hagen, 1919-2004

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

Charles Nelson Reilly

UTA—everyone called her by her first name—was playing Blanche DuBois in Chicago. Once a week, every week, she taught a two-hour acting class for her company and other actors who were playing in the city. I was in Medea with Judith Anderson and wanted to be a part of Uta's workshop. She told me that the class was full but I could audit it. In my datebook for 1949, in capital letters, I find "UTA-1-3" for Tuesdays in November and December.

Photo: Jack Mitchell

She was an inspired teacher. Her influence on young actors was as potent as her effect on her audiences during her great theater career. She gave me confidence 20 years later when I began to teach at Juilliard.

Uta—we were all her students. Her generosity of spirit will continue to be an inspiration to all who love acting and the power of theater.

Marian Seldes

Stanislavski wrote a book called An Actor Prepares, which was very nice of him, but nothing could prepare you for acting with Uta Hagen. Ms. Hagen was a serious and dedicated artist with a powerful ability to immerse herself in the moment-to-moment reality of a character. She also stopped me in the middle of our first day of rehearsal and said, "If you say that line that way, I won't get my laugh."

When the director and playwright suggested that the play should be performed without intermission, Ms. Hagen strenuously disagreed, saying that there was a natural break in the middle of the play, that an intermission would give the audience and the characters a needed sense of time passing, and that she had no intention of going an hour and a half without a cigarette.

In our second preview, during a quick change, I heard a terrible crash onstage, followed by a gasp from the audience. I came out to find Uta sprawled on her back on the auditorium floor, a small crowd around her. In the blackout between scenes, she'd missed the stagehands' offstage flashlights, headed for the lights along the auditorium floor, and fallen off the edge of the stage. She was 82, and she hadn't broken a bone. After we got her gently to her feet, she was determined to finish the play, and it was only after a lengthy argument and the intervention of the theater's managing director that she relented and went to the emergency room. Later she confided to me that she was sure that if she'd gone back on she'd have gotten a hand.

Uta was great because she was everything—theatrical and practical, quick-witted and methodical, vulnerable and resilient. We fell in love, she and I, and we consummated our passion eight times a week, twice on Wednesday, twice on Saturday. I know she loved to teach, but she lived to act.

David Hyde Pierce

Anne: Uta was a very important part of our lives; she laid the groundwork and gave us a map for the craft of acting. She was very loyal to her students and we felt privileged to be included among them. We were both in The Good Woman of Setzuan with her, and I was in A Month in the Country, directed by Michael Redgrave. I did summer stock with her, too. It was an adaptation of a Sardou farce. I played the French maid and was also Uta's dresser.

Jerry: If you were good enough to be her student, you were good enough to work with her onstage. She treated you like a fellow player. She had a social conscience, but she didn't preach. You absorbed it through being with her. And it wasn't just in the classroom. It was parties at her home, Christmas holidays. You'd become a part of her life.

Anne: Let me add that Edward Albee was quite right in pointing out what a good cook she was. There was, and I mean this as no disrespect, an earthiness to Uta. She had a lusty, raucous sense of humor. God, she loved a good joke.

Jerry: She was also very motherly to us. A strong mom. If you needed discipline, she let you know it. Once, down at the studio, I was doing a scene that involved a lot of anger. I started beating up the pillow, and feathers started flying all over the place. After the scene, she said to me, "Jerry, you'll clean that up."

Anne: She was always concerned about the struggling actor. She knew how economically difficult the actor's life can be, and even after Herbert died she fought to keep her classes affordable. She never overcharged. Uta possessed a democratic spirit.

Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara

I met Uta in 1986, when Herbert Berghof invited me to do a casual reading of Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken at their home. I had read her books in college and was so honored and excited to meet her. I remember feeling an instant rapport. In 1987, Herbert and Uta asked me to play Uta's daughter in Donna de Matteo's The Silver Fox in East Hampton, and it was there that our mother-daughter connection began. There was something familiar about her. Uta was born in Germany, and my Latvian immigrant parents had lived in Germany for five years in a refugee camp. Uta had spent her younger days in Madison, Wisconsin—I went to college in Eau Claire, just down the road. Uta was a Gemini, as was my biological mother. In 1995, Uta and Billy Carden invited me to play Uta's daughter in Nicholas Wright's Mrs. Klein at the Lucille Lortel. We ran for nine months and then toured for four. The months we played together were the most exhilarating of my life. I had found my artistic mother. She had a striking intelligence and a passionate heart. She demanded much and gave more. She had an unbeatable work ethic. She used to say, "It's not whether we can do this, it's whether we want to do the work." Rehearsal was heaven. Every day she came in with a million ideas about how to make it better. She was unrelenting in her excavation of the play. I remember the final performance of our tour—we were in Chicago. She came offstage after the curtain call speaking of some moment earlier in the play and said, "Now I know how to play that moment!" She was still searching. She was reticent to give notes to her fellow actor, knowing how tricky that can be, but on occasion the amazing teacher inside her would offer something to me and it would inevitably be correct. She had an extraordinarily meticulous process in endowing props with history and detail. She was absolutely spontaneous, fresh, and alive every night and taught me to maintain that over a long run. She taught me how quickly a character can think, and to play the action, not the emotion, in a scene. She taught me to trust my impulses and instincts, and she validated me. I think perhaps this was one of her great gifts. She was tough, she was demanding, she was tenacious, she did not suffer fools, but by God, when she said something positive you felt validated, and more importantly, hopeful that you could grow in your craft and through hard work and passionate focus become a better actor. She was a phenomenal teacher, a grand colleague, and a true partner onstage. She was also so much fun to be with. The company and I spent countless evenings at McBell's talking of the play or listening to Uta's priceless anecdotes from past plays. We would enjoy our sea breezes and "talk shop" or politics and heaven help me if I ordered chamomile tea instead of a proper drink. Uta was incredibly generous. The most thrilling gift came at Christmas when she gave Amy Wright a bracelet and me a brooch, both of which had been given to her by Ms. Le Gallienne, who had worn them onstage when she played in Camille. Uta, in turn, asked us to pass them on to a younger actor when the time came. She was my artistic mother and she filled me with every emotion possible. We had such lovely times together. It was always exciting, it was always demanding, and it was always fantastic!

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