Uta Hagen, the actress whose brutal, braying performance of Martha in the original production of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” galvanized Broadway in the 1960s, has died. She was 84.
Hagen died Wednesday at her Manhattan home, said Barnetta Carter, managing director of the HB Studio, an acting school the actress helped found. She had been in poor health since suffering a stroke in 2001.
The actress was a versatile performer, at home not only in Shakespeare, Chekhov and Shaw, but in plays by Albee, Clifford Odets and Tennessee Williams. Hagen also was a dedicated acting teacher, writing a well-regarded acting textbook and operating the HB Studio for decades with her husband, Herbert Berghof.
But it was as Martha in Albee’s corrosive 1962 tale of a combative marriage that she gained her biggest Broadway success. Her portrayal, opposite Arthur Hill as George, was fierce and uncompromising. The play won five Tony Awards, including acting prizes for both Hagen and Hill.
“She was just that woman, all of her, (capturing) the pathos, the beauty and vulgarity in her performance,” said actress Marian Seldes, recalling the original “Virginia Woolf.” “We were privy to something very special. I learned things I never knew about marriage from that play.”
Hagen made few movies, the best known being “The Other” (1972), “The Boys From Brazil” (1978) and “Reversal of Fortune” (1990), and when “Virginia Woolf” was filmed, the roles of Martha and George went to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Her real passion was the stage.
“I could play 10 performances a week forever and thrive on it,” Hagen told The Orange County (Calif.) Register in 2001. “I’m never bored. People who get bored don’t know their craft. There’s always something new to be gleaned from every performance. After two years of playing ‘The Cherry Orchard,’ you know what I did on closing night? I cried.”
Truthful and dedicatedHagen was known to say exactly what she thought, sparing no one, including herself.
In a recent interview with The New York Times, Albee called Hagen “a profoundly truthful actress” and “a dedicated and demanding teacher.”
“I should add,” Albee said, “she was a great anti-hypocrite, and a superb cook — not a bad friend to have.”
Hagen also took on such roles as Georgie in Odets’ “The Country Girl,” winning her first best-actress Tony in 1951. The actress appeared as Blanche DuBois in the national tour of Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” and when Jessica Tandy left the role on Broadway, she joined the New York cast opposite Marlon Brando.
Her later stage performances in the 1980s and ’90s included roles in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of “You Never Can Tell” and two off-Broadway plays, “Mrs. Klein” by Nicholas Wright and Donald Margulies’ “Collected Stories.”
Hagen received a third Tony Award, one for lifetime achievement, in 1999 and was awarded the National Medal of the Arts in 2002.
The daughter of an art historian and an opera singer, Hagen was born in Germany. The family moved to Wisconsin when she was 7 after her father took a job heading the art history department at the University of Wisconsin.
Hagen’s family immersed her in the arts from a young age. “Reading was considered as important as eating in our house,” Hagen once said.
Dinner table conversation revolved around classic literature, and by the age of 15, Hagen had become well-versed in Shakespeare, Moliere, Chekhov, O’Neill and all the other classic playwrights.
She knew she wanted to be an actor at the age of 9 when she saw “Saint Joan,” a role she later played.
Survived the blacklistShe left college to pursue her goal and made her debut in a 1937 production of “Hamlet,” playing Ophelia for Eva LeGallienne’s company.
Hagen’s first Broadway production was “The Seagull” in 1938 with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.
Hagen met her first husband, Jose Ferrer, while acting opposite him in “The Latitude of Love” in Ridgefield, Conn. She later appeared with him on Broadway in “Othello,” with Paul Robeson as the title character, Ferrer as Iago and Hagen as Desdemona.
They were married for a decade and had a daughter, Leticia Ferrer. They were divorced in 1948.
After World War II, the politically outspoken Hagen was blacklisted and acting jobs became scarcer.
Hagen taught at HB Studio, a performing arts training school, from 1947 until her health began failing. She married cofounder Berghof in 1951; he died in 1990. Among the studio’s alumni are Geraldine Page and Fritz Weaver.
Hagen’s 1991 book “A Challenge for the Actor” has served as a textbook for aspiring actors across the country.
“I would like to disagree with George Bernard Shaw’s statement that ’He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches’ to express my personal belief that ’Only he who can should teach,”’ she said in her book.
In addition to her daughter, Hagen is survived by a granddaughter and a great-granddaughter.