STAGE TO SCREENS: A Chat with Theresa Rebeck; Remembering Uta Hagen

By Michael Buckley
18 Jan 2004

STAGE TO SCREENS: A Chat with Theresa Rebeck; Remembering Uta Hagen

This month we talk to Theresa Rebeck and recall an interview with the legendary Uta Hagen.

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Since Theresa Rebeck, who's had much success writing for TV, recently had two plays—Omnium Gatherum (written with Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros) and Bad Dates—on New York stages, would that indicate a return to her first love? "I never stopped doing theatre," insists Rebeck. "It's interesting. I think people think you have to concentrate on one or the other. Right now, I have stopped doing television. It's what I've done to support myself and my family. I just got tired of it."

When she started in television, admits Rebeck, "I think I was a little ahead of the curve. Maybe not. I just know so many people now who do both. It's a very delicate balancing act. You can get overwhelmed by the demands of either world.

"The stage gives you more control over your own work; in television, there's a distressing amount of communal writing. Unless it's your show, you have no control over that. You're at the mercy of whoever's running the show. I find a lot of input from other people very stressful."



Her first TV work was "for a sitcom that didn't last very long, 'American Dreamer.' It had a fantastic cast—Carol Kane, Robert Urich, Maggie Welsh, Jeff Tambor. The network didn't believe in it. Then I did 'Brooklyn Bridge.'

"One thing I won't do in television is a sitcom. I find that world to be so neurotic and bizarre. My plays are comedies, but my work is character-centric. I don't belong in television comedy; I'm not a joke writer.

"The stuff that passes as comedy on television, these days, is all joke writing. I can't do it. I have admiration for people who can do it well—the guys who wrote 'Cheers' and 'Frasier.' They created sort of a blissful comedic universe."

Steven Bochco offered Rebeck a position on "NYPD Blue," which she considers her "breakthrough on TV. I worked for two-and-a-half years, and did about ten scripts. They pay you to be on staff, and then they pay you per episode. It's a lot of money, but that doesn't solve everything. People would say, 'What are you complaining about? You're making a gazillion dollars.' I thought, Well, you can still be so tortured that a gazillion dollars doesn't mean much."

Rebeck has also written for "L.A. Law" and "Third Watch," and was a writer-producer (until last January) for "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." Says Rebeck, "I was doing a number of plays at the same time. When you're working on several things at once, you never know what's going to hit the front of your consciousness at any given moment."

Does she have a set routine for writing? "I never did. I always write a lot. I sort of perversely enjoy it, in a way that other writers don't. Some people have a problem finishing things. I get anxious when things aren't finished."

She's known since "about the age of six" that she wanted to be a writer. "I did spend a lot of time thinking I wasn't good enough. I still do that. Sometimes, I'll say to my husband [stage manager Jess Lynn], 'I feel like a real writer now.' He'll say, 'Well, what do you think you are?' Writing is like a compulsion with me. I consider myself primarily a playwright, who does these other things. I wouldn't describe myself as a screenwriter."

Rebeck will have a screen credit for the forthcoming feature, "Catwoman." "It was an original screenplay, so I don't think they can take your name off, but it's Hollywood. You never know what happens. A lot of people ended up writing it. When they hire another writer, you get hurt, but it's budgeted [to use other writers]."

Her stage breakthrough was "a play called Sunday on the Rocks. It was picked up by one of the Boston theatres and had a very successful run. There was interest in bringing it to New York, but someone lied about having the money. It got me an agent. At [New York's] Second Stage in '92, I did Spike Heels, with Kevin Bacon, Tony Goldwyn, Saundra Santiago and Julie White [star of Bad Dates]. That's when I met Julie. She did The Family of Mann with me at Second Stage in '94. That was about my hellish adventures in sitcom land. In L.A., Julie did a one-act play I wrote, and then the film of 'Sunday on the Rocks.' That's when I started writing Bad Dates."

When Bad Dates (directed by John Benjamin Hickey) finishes its run at Boston's Huntington Theatre in February, "there is hope that it will play other theatres and maybe come back to New York. It did well at Playwrights [Horizons], but it wasn't clear if people could pick it up. Now, it's having a wild success."

Upcoming for Rebeck, the mother of Cooper ("he's almost nine") and Cleo (approaching three) are two plays. "This summer at Williamstown—it's their 50th anniversary—I'm doing The Water's Edge. It's a tragedy, with Kate Burton, who's wonderful in it. And at the McCarter in the fall, I believe, there's going to be a play named Gold." Wasn't that one of the titles for Sondheim's Bounce? "But it's not anymore," says Theresa Rebeck. "I figure it's up for grabs again."

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In 1998, while Uta Hagen was preparing to star in what would be her final New York stage appearance, Collected Stories, the superb actress and I spoke in her Greenwich Village apartment. Even 60 years after having made her Broadway debut, she remained passionate about her art, and a listener instantly got caught up in her enthusiasm. Seated beside her throughout the interview was a toy poodle named G.B. (for George Bernard Shaw).

Determined to act since childhood, when she saw Elisabeth Bergner play Saint Joan, Hagen made her professional debut as Ophelia, opposite the Hamlet of Eva LeGallienne. She still expressed astonishment at the fact. "My next job was Nina in The Seagull, [her Broadway bow] with the Lunts, on Broadway. That sounds incredible, too. They were an enormous influence on my life." She admired "their passion for the theatre, and their discipline. It was a 24-hour-a-day affair, and I never forgot it—never!"

Hagen's first husband was Jose Ferrer, to whom she was married from 1938 to '48. With Ferrer as Iago and Paul Robeson in the title role, Hagen played Desdemona in Othello. "We did it from '42 to '45—Joe [Ferrer] and I and Paul. We opened at Harvard; then, we went to Princeton. There was such a to-do about it—the notion at that time in this country of a black man and a white woman onstage was just unheard of; that he would kiss me and hug me, slap me and strangle me, was an event."

She met her second husband, Herbert Berghof, while appearing in The Whole World Over; he was a cast replacement. "We had a relationship that lasted 44 years. Herbert and I lived together 10 years before we were married, and the night we had our 25th wedding anniversary, he gave me a little heart. On one side, it said "25," and on the other, "Plus 10." He always gave me a little heart for whatever anniversary—different shapes, different sizes—but that's my favorite little heart." Berghof, with whom she started the famed HB Studio in Manhattan, died in 1990.

Prior to touring as Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, Hagen subbed for three weeks for a vacationing Jessica Tandy on Broadway, playing two weeks opposite Anthony Quinn as Stanley, and a week with Marlon Brando [who had a two-week break]. "I was directed by [Elia] Kazan only three days. He admitted that he was bored by the play, by then, and that he didn't like Blanche. I said, 'That is not very helpful to me.' I had worked on the play for months with my husband, Herbert Berghof, before I went into it.

"After I opened, [producer] Irene Selznick said, 'I think you need more direction.' I said, 'So do I, but [Kazan] doesn't want to do it.' Kazan then said, 'I got you [Harold] Clurman [to direct the tour].' I leaped with joy! I played it with Tony Quinn, who was going to play it on the road with me. Irene Selznick hired Tony for a third week, just in case Brando didn't show up. Even then, he was that undisciplined. Shocking! Anyhow, [Brando] appeared, just after 'Half-hour' was called—not just before 'Half-hour.' Tony said, 'Make him play. I don't want to hear all the boos when they announce me, instead of him.' I told Irene, 'Let's try five minutes [working with Brando, before curtain time].' It was fun. It was like a tennis match. We played unbelievably well together."

On the road with Quinn, Hagen remembered being "black-and blue. Tony would come towards me, pick me up, and shake me. I'd see his thumbs coming out. I used to say to him, 'I have more makeup on my body than I do on my face.' He'd say, 'I'm so sorry. I felt it; I couldn't help it.' I don't think anybody ever should be hurt onstage. It's not art, it's crap! One night, Tony's coming at me, and I see the thumbs. As he grabbed me, I started to scream. He let me go; he couldn't remember his lines. I fed him back in [to the dialogue]. Offstage, he said, 'You're not supposed to do that.' I said, 'I'm so sorry. I felt it. I couldn't help it.' He never hurt me again."

For the tour (as opposed to on Broadway), the role of Blanche was emphasized over Stanley. "Absolutely! To me, Blanche is the protagonist. The whole theme is the highly over-sensitized idealist who lives in the real world of brutality. Clurman and I were totally in tune.

"When I saw Jessica and Marlon play it, [Blanche] was crazy when the play started. When she's put away, you say, 'Thank God, the woman's out of her misery.' And Marlon was so sensitive, you thought the poor guy just had a bad education. It turned the whole play upside down.

"Streetcar was a wonderful experience. Oh, my God, I loved that play! I played it over two years without a vacation. Blanche is a huge, shattering role to play eight times a week. By comparison, I felt Virginia Woolf not strenuous at all."

Following the Broadway run of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Hagen made her London stage debut as Martha. "They still had the Lord Chamberlain, so we had this idiotic censorship. We were allowed three 'Jesus Christs,' instead of ten. Why three were okay, I don't know. My entrance line was, 'Jesus H. Christ.' Edward [Albee] suggested 'Mary H. Magdalene.' And it passed! Opening night, I was a wreck, and I had played it for a year [in New York]. I came out and said, 'Jesus H...Magdalene.' We were not allowed to say, 'Screw,' but we could say, 'Hump the hostess,' because 'hump' is in Shakespeare. I won't go to England [anymore] because they won't let my dog in."

The part of Martha won Hagen a second Tony Award; her first was for The Country Girl, which, she noted, was "the only successful play I've done that I was glad when it closed. I had great success in it, but I never liked the last act. In Boston, we learned three last acts in one week. I was going out of my mind. He [writer director Clifford Odets] couldn't decide how to end it. The last act was soap opera-ish, corny, ordinary. Some people think it was one of the best things I ever did. I don't believe that."

Where did she keep her Tonys? "In the closet. Awards don't really mean much." The movie versions of Country Girl and Virginia Woolf won Oscars for the actresses who starred: Grace Kelly (in 1954) and Elizabeth Taylor (1966). Hagen made only three films: The Other (1972), The Boys from Brazil (1978) and Reversal of Fortune (1990). Did she have a favorite among them? With a laugh, she declared, "NO!"

Explained Hagen, "The medium drives me crazy! I love going to the movies; I love watching good movie actors. They must know something I don't. After two weeks of [working on] ‘The Other,’ we didn't have a foot of film. A whole day [was spent] to walk on a lawn and wave. It's not for me."

Which role had brought Hagen the most satisfaction? "Maybe the one I enjoyed playing most was A Month in the Country. And I love playing Chekhov. That's the hardest; that's why I love it most. I love Shaw. I loved playing Saint Joan. Sybil Thorndyke said, 'You can never be too old for Joan, only too young.' I didn't do most of the Shaw plays I should have: Major Barbara, Pygmalion or Doctor's Dilemma."

In 1959, Hagen appeared in a television adaptation of "A Month in the Country." She'd made her TV debut in a 1945 adaptation of Joseph Conrad's "Victory," and among her TV appearances were a 1950 version of "Macbeth," "The Willow and I" (1952), a 1959 "Playhouse 90" presentation, "Out of Dust," "The Day Before Sunday" (1970), and "The Home," one of three plays that comprised a 1991 "American Playhouse" presentation called "The Sunset Gang."

She had roles in two TV movies: "A Doctor's Story" (1984) and "Seasonal Differences" (1987). She guest-starred on episodes of "The Long, Hot Summer" (in 1966), "Lou Grant" (1982) and "Twilight Zone" (1986). In 1999, Hagen supplied the voice for a cartoon character on "King of the Hill," and portrayed the mother of George Morfogen (Redabow) on "Oz."

Hagen wrote four books: "Love for Cooking," "Sources: A Memoir," "Respect for Acting" ("I have disassociated myself from that book," she insisted) and "A Challenge for the Actor." She'd once been quoted that she seldom attended theatre because [as a teacher] she saw acting all day. "I was being kind. I don't go because I get mad. I think, by and large, the level of acting is mediocre. When I go to the theatre, I get so angry. I think, ‘Why did I go?’

"Usually, someone who's in a show gets me a ticket. I feel cornered. I can't walk out if I don't like it. I'm a bad liar; I don't know what to say backstage. Once in awhile, there's stuff that makes me say, 'That's what theatre's about.' It has to be a human event on the stage, and that doesn't happen very often." But it did whenever Uta Hagen stood center stage.

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END QUIZ: Which of the following actors appeared with Uta Hagen in the 1959 TV version of "A Month in the Country": a) Luther Adler; b) Richard Easton; c) Alexander Scourby? (Answer: Next column, February 15)

The December 21 question was: On December 29, 1975, CBS-TV showed a rejected pilot for a sitcom based on the play, "The Owl and the Pussycat." Co-starring were Buck Henry and which of the following actresses: a) Madeline Kahn; b) Bernadette Peters; c) Tammy Grimes? The answer is b).

Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com and The Sondheim Review. He may be reached at mbuckley6@nyc.rr.com