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A Majestic Memorial Service for Uta Hagen

By New York City
Uta Hagen
Uta Hagen
Friends and colleagues gathered at the Majestic Theatre yesterday to pay tribute to the late, great actress and teacher Uta Hagen. Among them were director William Carden; actors George Grizzard, Austin Pendleton, David Hyde Pierce, Marlo Thomas, Laila Robins, and Lindsay Crouse; playwright Edward Albee; and Father Steve Chinlund, a close friend of Hagen.

"Billy" Carden directed Hagen's last three performances on the New York stage: in Mrs. Klein, Collected Stories, and a one-night-only HB Studios benefit reading (at the Majestic) of Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Recalling her return to the role of Martha at 80, Carden said that the moment Hagen delivered her first line ("Jesus H. Christ!"), the years vanished. There have been, conceded Carden, great actors and great teachers, but none of them "practiced, taught, and wrote about the art of acting like Uta Hagen."

Carden remarked that Hagen had affected "thousands and thousands of people. [She] was one human being who, quite simply, loved to act." He mentioned that Hagen claimed not to have wanted a memorial but that she also said that actors should never read reviews "and I know for a fact that she read every one." When he confronted her with that, Hagen balked: "I'm older. I know how to read them!"

He spoke about Hagen's audition for Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. She had been advised not to do anything from The Seagull, which the Lunts were then rehearsing. As she approached center stage, however, Hagen realized that she knew the part of Nina much better than Nora in A Doll's House, and so she performed as Nina. Afterwards, the Lunts ran up onstage. "She thought they were going to castigate her," noted Carden. Instead, they hired Hagen to replace the actress they had previously chosen, and the 18-year-old made her Broadway debut.

According to Carden, Hagen believed that "to act in the theater was the highest calling" and that "the hardest thing is to be a human being onstage." He spoke of accompanying Hagen to see a doctor during rehearsals for Mrs. Klein because he suspected that she had throat cancer (due to her heavy smoking). Hagen insisted that Carden be with her in the examining room ("He's my director!"). When shown pictures of her vocal cords, the actress demanded, "Where did you go [with the camera]? Those aren't my vocal cords; that's my vagina!"

A video of Hagen photographs and film clips was then shown. Among her remarks in the clips were that her role in A Month in the Country had been one of her favorites and that playing Blanche DuBois opposite the Stanley Kowalski of Anthony Quinn in the tour of A Streetcar Named Desire had left her black and blue. Quinn claimed that he would get lost in the moment and therefore become very physical; one night, the bruised Hagen retaliated by screaming as he grabbed her. Backstage, when Quinn questioned her action, she explained that she had gotten lost in the moment. He never hurt her again.

Hagen also stated that second husband, Herbert Berghof, always wanted her to work ("it's your obligation"); that first husband José Ferrer was multi-talented ("he played guitar better than Segovia"); and that she desired "to do one thing as well as I possibly can." She reflected on how she turned down television offers that promised to make her a household name ("Like Lysol?") and stated that her goal was "to provide food for the soul."

After Carden read a letter from Harold Prince (in which he ranked Hagen with Laurette Taylor and called her "a pistol"), Edward Albee stepped to the podium. He complained that an example of life not being fair was his having "to follow Uta [on screen]." When did he first become aware of Hagen, he wondered aloud. Was it when she played in Othello opposite her husband José Ferrer and her lover Paul Robeson? According to Albee, everyone went to see the production "knowing the scandal" but Hagen and her colleagues proved that the play was about Desdemona, Othello, and Iago.

Albee said that Hagen's performance in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was "the beginning of my love affair with her extraordinary talent." Hagen had not been the original choice for Martha, he confided; Geraldine Page had accepted the part but Lee Strasberg insisted on being present as "supervising director." The playwright deemed that demand "preposterous," so "out the window went Geraldine and in flew Uta." Albee noted that Hagen didn't much like director Alan Schneider. "Oddly, she liked George Grizzard [the original Nick]," but her attitude toward everyone else "was tolerant and further south." According to Albee, Hagen's performance in the original production "was equaled by only one other I've ever seen: Uta at 80."

His relationship with the star was adversely affected to some degree, reminisced Albee, by a letter from Herbert Berghof in which Berghof, who had been insulted by Albee's opinion of his performance in Krapp's Last Tape, called Albee the Anti-Christ. ("One of my better reviews at the time," Albee quipped.) The playwright later "was allowed to see Uta again" and, indeed, visited her near the end of her life: "She was eager to move on, eager to close," he said.

Lindsay Crouse spoke of Hagen as a teacher. "Ladies," she would advise students, "get your hair out of your face. We don't pay our good money to come hunting for you." A famous line of encouragement from Hagen was, "You're the sun -- shine!" George Grizzard said that he had "so many happy memories" of Hagen and added that he, like many actors, had bought her books on performing and cooking "in hopes that it would help our acting -- and our roast chicken." Father Steve Chinlund said that Hagen's "passionate commitment to the theater kept her alive." Laila Robins called Hagen her "artistic mother," [who] "demanded much and gave more."

Austin Pendleton remembered how, in 1962, he became a student of Hagen's and saw her in Virginia Woolf: "I saw that my acting teacher knew what she was talking about." He spoke of later directing Geraldine Page in a production of Ghosts and suggesting that she transform a series of small moments into one big moment. Page replied, "Uta told me that 30 years ago!" Pendleton also demonstrated Hagen's instruction to students on how to take a curtain call in such a way as to make the applause build again after it starts to wane. Marlo Thomas related that she and David Hyde Pierce had co-hosted a celebration for Hagen's 84th birthday. Hagen terminated the party just as Thomas and Pierce were about to perform a parody; declaring, "No more! My ass hurts," she exited in her wheelchair.

David Hyde Pierce co-starred with Hagen in her last show, the Los Angeles production of Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks. She wanted to wait for Pierce's hiatus from TV's Frasier in order that they could re-team in the play on Broadway but, in the meantime, Hagen suffered a stroke. Pierce remembered how, during rehearsals, he had tossed away a certain line. "Are you going to say that like that?" asked Hagen, adding that if he did, "I can't get my laugh." There was a dispute over a piece of stage business; Hagen screamed "Fuck it" and stormed off, saying "I wish you would have some respect for me." Pierce screamed, "As long as I live, I shall never have anything but respect for you!" The director called for a break and the two actors began speaking during it. "By the time we got to the car," Pierce said, "we were in love."

He recalled how, during rehearsals, Hagen had used a Tupperware dish to hold some cookies that her character had baked for Pierce's dance instructor. Later, the designer found a "beautiful cookie tin." Discovering it, Hagen shouted, "What the hell is this shit?" and threw it offstage, insisting that the designer was trying to ruin her performance. Pierce also spoke of the night that Hagen fell off the stage. After being convinced not to continue the performance, she admitted to Pierce, "I wanted to go back on because I knew I'd get [a huge response]." Hagen's belief, according to Pierce, was that "if you have done your work, you have earned your bow." Presently, Pierce surmised, Hagen was probably "giving Jesus notes on the Passion."

At the end of the program, daughter Letitia Ferrer came on to thank everyone and to say that she knew her mother was going to "make it" after her stroke when Hagen demanded cigarettes and vodka. She also noted that David Hyde Pierce would call "religiously every Sunday." At Letitia's request, he phoned at the very end -- and, just as the receiver was removed from her ear, Hagen expired.

"I was her daughter," said Ferrer, "but you, the students, were her children." The exquisite tribute was followed by a final standing ovation for the sterling Uta Hagen.


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