Tony-winning actress had commanding, ferocious presence

NEW YORK — Uta Hagen, one of the theater’s great actresses, died Wednesday at her home in Manhattan. She was 84.

A commanding, ferocious presence on stage, Hagen is best remembered for her creation of the role of Martha in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” The original 1962 Broadway production won the actress her second Tony Award. She had previously won in 1950 for playing the title role in “The Country Girl.”

In fall 1999, Hagen reprised her definitive Martha for a one-perf reading of “Virginia Woolf?” with Jonathan Price, Mia Farrow and Matthew Broderick. The gala benefited the HB Studios, the famed acting school which Hagen had founded with her late husband Herbert Berghof. At year’s end, many critics cited Hagen’s performance in the Albee reading as one of the highlights of that legit season. Unfortunately, it marked her final Broadway turn.

In spring 2001, she and David Hyde Pierce opened at L.A.’s Geffen Playhouse in “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks.” They were scheduled to take Richard Alfieri’s two-hander to Broadway the following year, but a stroke prevented the actress from bringing the play to Gotham.

Born in Gottingen, Germany, and raised in Madison, Wis., Hagen studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. She was the daughter of an art historian and an opera singer. Classic literature was commonly discussed in her home, and by the age of 15, Hagen had become well versed in Shakespeare, Moliere, Chekhov and O’Neill.

Early in her career, the actress displayed such remarkable talent that several legit legends sought her as their costar. In 1937, she appeared as Ophelia opposite Eva Le Gallienne’s Hamlet with the Civic Repertory Company. The following year, she made her Broadway debut playing Nina in “The Seagull,” which starred Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. She played Desdemona to Paul Robeson’s Othello in the 1940s. In 1948, she replaced Jessica Tandy as Blanche Du Bois and played opposite Marlon Brando in the original production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

More recently, she appeared Off Broadway in Nicholas Wright’s “Mrs. Klein” in 1995, and Donald Margulies’ “Collected Works” in 1998. Both portrayals brought to life the kind of strong-willed, challenging, if not difficult, characters that had always distinguished Hagen’s theater career.

Her film and TV work was infrequent. Notable films include “The Other,” “The Boys From Brazil” and “Reversal of Fortune,” in which she played Sunny Von Bulow’s befuddled maid, Maria.

Hagen received a third Tony Award, for lifetime achievement, in 1999 and was awarded the National Medal of the Arts in 2002.

Prior to Berghof, Hagen was married to Jose Ferrer, whom she met while appearing with 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.

She is survived by their daughter, Leticia Ferrer, and a granddaughter.

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