Hagen was regarded as one of the fiercest and most commanding female presences ever to grace the American stage. Whenever and wherever great talents convened, there she was. She began her career playing Ophelia to Eva Le Gallienne's Hamlet. Soon after, she made her New York debut as Nina in The Seagull opposite the Lunts. In Paul Robeson's famous production of Othello, she played Desdemona. And, she replaced Jessica Tandy as Blanche, acting opposite Marlon Brando in the original A Streetcar Named Desire.
She won a Tony Award for portraying the title role in Clifford Odets' The Country Girl; and seized another Tony for creating the vicious and hilarious Martha in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the role with which she is perhaps most identified. In 1999, the actress was presented with a Special Lifetime Achievement Tony Award. She also had an imposing reputation as a theorist ("Respect for Acting") and acting teacher.
Uta Hagen—as her name might suggest—was born in Germany in 1919, and there was definitely something Teutonic about her. She was a demanding, dominating presence on stage and off, rigid in her commitment to her craft and a ferocious performer. In her later years, either she or her playwrights seemed to sense the nature of her character, as she typically played willful and intimidating individualists. Her last two major parts were as a hard-headed, ruthless psychiatrist in Nicholas Wright's Mrs. Klein and an opinionated Greenwich Village novelist in Donald Margulies Collected Works, both Off-Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
As Edward Albee once said, "I've seen Uta act many times, and I've never seen 'pathetic' in her quiver."
Her skills as both a teacher and a fellow actor were sensed by her collegues. "She was very careful not to give me too many notes," said her Mrs. Klein co-star, Laila Robins, "because she knows that if you give an actor too many notes, then that actor feels like they're being watched, assessed or judged. But every note she gave me was exactly correct. I learned so much. She can be intimidating at times, but that's all good." Uta Hagen spent most of her career on the stage. This was partly due to her being blacklisted in the 1950s, but also a choice. She loved long runs and had little patience for actors who sought the ease, glory and money of Hollywood. "If you want a bourgeois existence, you shouldn't be an actor," she declared in one interview. "You're in the wrong profession."
She guided many an actor's career at HB Studios, the acting school she founded on Bank Street in Greenwich Village with her husband Herbert Berghof (Berghof died in 1990). Hundreds of performers have passed through its doors, and it remains of the most respected acting academies in New York City.
While teaching there, she was given the script to Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Her performances at that time had been sporadic, but she leaped at the chance of playing the tormenting and tormented Martha, who supplies the three-act drama with a steady flow of booze, manipulation and vitriol. She was hesitant about working with director Alan Schneider, who had a reputation for antagonizing actors, but Schneider never bothered her. "Uta would have chewed off his head and spat it out," noted Albee.
She won the Tony for her performance and became known as a supreme interpreter of Albee's stinging prose, though she never acted in another of the dramatist's works. (She was offered parts, but turned them down.)
Throughout her career, she gravitated toward taxing perfectionists. Eva Le Gallienne auditioned her twice for her Hamlet, drilling her and working with her until "I said it right," remembered Ms. Hagen. "She nearly hypnotized me, but it got better." Alfred Lunt rehearsed with her through the night before giving her the part of Nina. "They were great taskmasters in the best sense of the word," she said of the Lunts years later. When she left the tour of The Seagull to marry Jose Ferrer, Lunt accused her of being unprofessional—probably the last time she was ever called that.
Her Broadway work following The Seagull included The Happiest Days, Key Largo, Vickie, Othello and The Whole World Over. After her triumph in The Country Girl, she appeared in a series of short-lived productions: Saint Joan, In Any Language, The Magic and The Loss and Island of Goats. She was a member of the Pheonix Theatre of T. Edward Hambleton, whom she called "an unbelievably serious man who was passionate about the theatre." At the Pheonix, she got the chance to play one of her favorite parts, the lovesick Natalya Petrovna in Turgenev's A Month in the Country. (She repeated her work on television in 1959, in one of her few small screen appearances.)
Two of her last three Broadway appearances were in plays by her favorite writers: The Cherry Orchard by Chekhov and You Never Can Tell by Shaw. (Her dog was named G.B., short for George Bernard.)
Hagen was married to actor José Ferrer from 1938 to 1948. They performed together in Key Largo, Vickie and Othello, in which he played Iago. The union produced her only child, Leticia Ferrer (known as Letty), who survives her. She married Herbert Berghof in 1957.
Ironically, her last role was in one of the worst plays with which she was ever associated: Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks. The acting and star power of Ms. Hagen and her co-star David Hyde Pierce made the slight play a hit during its 2001 Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. The work promised to be her Broadway swan song when it was announced for an April 2002 New York bow. After she suffered a stroke, however, the show was postponed. (It eventually opened in fall 2003 to poor reviews and a short run.)
Ever committed to the theatre, she continued to teach at HB Studios until a few months before she died.
"I've always said I wanted to die onstage," she told Playbill while performing in Collected Stories. "Then when I was in Mrs. Klein I had bad, bad bronchitis, and took too much medication, and blanked out. Couldn't hear, couldn't see, couldn't breathe. I went to [director] Billy Carden and said: 'I've changed my mind. I don't want to die onstage.' Billy said: 'Wait for the curtain call.' "