Born in Germany in 1919, Hagen moved to America with her family at age seven. She studied at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the University of Wisconsin before beginning her acting career. Her professional debut was in 1937, playing Ophelia opposite the Hamlet of renowned actress Eva Le Gallienne.
Hagen's myriad stage credits included the 1938 revival of The Seagull that starred Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne; a critically hailed 1943 production of Othello that co-starred Paul Robeson and Hagen's first husband, José Ferrer; A Streetcar Named Desire (Hagen played the role of Blanche DuBois on tour and replaced original star Jessica Tandy on Broadway); and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which she created the now-classic role of Martha. Hagen won Tony Awards for her work in Virginia Woolf and in The Country Girl (1950), as well as a Special Lifetime Achievement Tony in 1999.
Among her many other Broadway shows were The Happiest Days (1939), Key Largo with Paul Muni (1939), Vickie (1942), The Whole World Over (1947), Saint Joan (1951), In Any Language (1952), The Magic and the Loss (1954), Island of Goats (1955), The Cherry Orchard (1968), Charlotte (1980), and You Never Can Tell (1986). In her later years, Hagen earned great acclaim for her work in two Off-Broadway productions, Mrs. Klein and Collected Stories. She appeared only occasionally in films and on television, her most recent credits including Limón: A Life Beyond Words and episodes of Oz and King of the Hill.
Her last stage appearance was in Richard Alfieri's Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks at The Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles in 2001. Hagen co-starred with David Hyde Pierce in the two-character play; plans for the production to move to Broadway with its stars intact were scuttled when Hagen suffered a stroke. (Six Dance Lessons subsequently had a brief Broadway run in 2003, with Polly Bergen and Mark Hamill co-starring.)
Aside from her legendary stage performances, Hagen was an esteemed acting teacher. Her books Respect for Acting and A Challenge for the Actor are widely considered must-read texts for aspiring performers. Hagen and her second husband, Herbert Berghof (who died in 1990), ran the Herbert Berghof Studio, dedicated to professional training of actors of all ages.
In November 1999, Hagen was named one of the 100 Greatest Stage Actors of the Century by InTheater magazine. Asked to contribute to an article in the same issue on the state of the theater at the end of the 20th century, she wrote an essay titled "What We've Lost," from which the following excerpt was drawn:
"When I look at the changes in theater since I began acting, it seems to me that the relationship between the actor and the theater has become fly-by-night. It's as if young actors are somehow doing audiences a favor by appearing on stage for a few months between more 'important' work in film and television. That's an insult to the theater, an affront to the art of acting. They aren't really commited to the stage and they come unprepared. To build and sustain a live performance over three hours is quite different from stringing together scenes of a minute and a half. I respect film acting very much but it's a different technique, and I don't think that doing one well necessarily means that you're equipped to do the other."
On May 30, 2001, a preview performance of Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks at The Geffen Playhouse was halted when Hagen fell from the stage; she was admitted to the emergency room at UCLA Medical Center and discharged that same night. According to an official statement released by the theater, Hagen "accidentally slipped off the stage during a scene change in the second act and fell into the audience area. The show was momentarily halted and two audience members who were doctors examined Ms. Hagen. She eventually stood up on her own accord and received a standing ovation from the audience."
Uta Hagen is survived by her daughter, Letitia Ferrer, a granddaughter, and a great-granddaughter.