Uta Hagen calls her Sunday lunch guests to the table where she has put six bowls of hot soup. It is one of her famous recipes, a cream of asparagus, mixed with chicken broth and dotted with baby green peas. But before anybody has a taste, she glances out the window and shouts, “Oh, my God, they’ve come!”
She grabs a bag of seed from the kitchen and runs to an open terrace where a dozen nuthatches, sparrows and purple finches are raising hell around two empty feeders. Hagen calls back to her hungry human guests, “Start your soup.”
Hardly anyone seeing her in the village shops of Montauk, N.Y. buying birdseed or leg of lamb (marinated overnight in a superb sauce, see p. 72) recognizes Uta as America’s most powerful stage actress. She appears only infrequently now, though both Broadway and London still echo after 15 years with her prize-winning snarls as the faculty wife in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Her most recent job was in the movie of Ira Levin’s book The Boys from Brazil, out this fall. As an ex-Nazi prison guard mixed up in a bizarre plot to rule the world, Uta has only one scene. But to Laurence Olivier, who stars in the film, her brief appearance is “really a high spot… It was such a comfort to be working with one so happily professional,” he wrote to a friend, “and I pray it will not be the one mutual partnership allowed to us…” Additional recognition came this year from Smith College, which made Uta an honorary doctor of fine arts with fancy Latin sweet talk: Artium Elegantium Exquisitarumque Doctoris.
Yet it is clear that Uta Hagen is by no means as famous today as she once was. The reasons are not so obvious. Has time simply passed her by? (She is in her 50s.) Is today’s commercial theater too trashy to attract her? Or is she too busy—in her kitchen, garden and drama classrooms—to bother about fame?
Uta spent three years writing the cookbook she published in 1976, Love for Cooking. To her it is still a holy calling. “She phones you 72 hours before you’re expected at a meal,” says her actor friend Fritz Weaver, “and announces, ‘Your dinner is cooking now.’ ” She devises elaborate battle plans for cooking, freezing and reheating, and her freezer is always a well-stocked arsenal of olive puffs, spinach crêpes and beef roulade.
She lives in New York, where she and her husband, Herbert Berghof, run a top-rank theater school. But Ufa’s Eden is their small place on the ocean at Montauk. “I like gardening best of anything in the world,” she says. Before going to bed she sometimes waters her young plants by flashlight—a sort of botanical equivalent of a good-night kiss—and gets up daily at 5:30 to dig, weed, plant and tidy up her lawn with an electric mower. On their one-acre plot, she has planted and lost more than 100 trees to salt air and fierce ocean winds. She gloats over every surviving tree and bush as if it were a trophy won in combat.
Wild deer drive her crazy feasting on her garden. She tries to scare them off by throwing rocks, shooting a popgun, yelling and jumping—histrionics that would thrill any theater audience. The only thing that really discourages the animals is a double fence that deer cannot jump over. Crows are another problem. Uta tries to terrify them by tying plastic owls in her trees. Far from being scared, the crows perch on the owls.
Uta was born in Göttingen, Germany. Her mother was a singing teacher, her father an expert on art history. Invited to teach at the University of Wisconsin, Oskar Hagen brought his wife and two small children to Madison, where Uta thrived on small-town American joys: lakeside picnics, swimming, horseback riding. At home she read Ibsen, Goethe and Chekhov at the age of 12. Because her parents were not regular churchgoers, some classmates once bloodied her face with a volley of icy snowballs, and screamed “Atheist!” at her.
But home was a lively haven, where her family made a big thing of holidays, inviting lonely students to share their Thanksgiving feasts. These were climaxed not with traditional hot mince pie, but with a sweet nut torte that Uta still makes today.
Uta took naturally to the theater. Her mother had sung in opera, and her portly father was a Falstaffian show-off who sometimes started his lectures, like offstage music, in the hall outside the classroom and continued as he made his grand entrance to the platform.
At 17, Uta coaxed her parents into letting her study at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (she hated it), and then proceeded by an artful balance of charm and audacity to win the role of Ophelia in a Hamlet directed by the famous Eva Le Gallienne. At 19, Uta was on Broadway in Chekhov’s The Sea Gull with America’s greatest acting team, Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt. In another play Uta had to wear boxing gloves and take a poke at her leading man, whom she knocked down. He was a well-regarded young actor, José Ferrer. They got married.
Appearing together in Othello, they had a longer run than any other Shakespeare play in U.S. stage history. Ferrer was evil lago. Uta, as Desdemona to Paul Robeson’s Othello, was smothered onstage more than 400 times.
When the marriage ended after 10 years, Ferrer went on to other hits and other wives, and Uta had a blazing Chicago success in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, playing neurotic Blanche DuBois.
During this run, the schoolmarm in Uta began to surface. She taught the ABC’s to her daughter, Letty, in their hotel room, and she worried about her fellow actors. “They get lazy on long tours,” she said. “They carouse around after the show and sleep until afternoon.” No puritan herself, Uta still deplored this waste of talent. She started afternoon acting classes for other members of the cast.
By 1947 Ufa’s love of coaching led her to join Herbert Berghof in the HB Studio, which today has 50 teachers. Among its students have been such important actors as Jack Lemmon, Jason Robards, Geraldine Page, Dina Merrill, Fritz Weaver and Steve McQueen. Many come back to work on special scenes with Uta and to boost their spirits. Says Weaver: “She helps us do battle with our baser natures.”
“In our school we allow no pot, no drugs, no weirdos, no rudeness,” says Uta. “They are like measles—infectious.” Unlike some theater teachers who pulverize their students’ egos, Uta and Berghof are firmly critical but always kind. “If we can’t do it with love,” says Berghof, “we don’t want to do it.”
Along with teaching, Uta has done dozens of stage and TV roles without slighting her students. Though she burned nightly at the stake in Shaw’s Saint Joan, she was ready for school again in the morning.
Between times she wrote a textbook, Respect for Acting, which in five years has become a classic, outselling any other in its field. Actors, she says, need rhythm in their work like good baseball pitchers. And actors, above all, must react freshly to each other at every performance, taking advantage of whatever happens. “A cat is fascinating to watch,” says Uta, “because it is unpredictable. Actors should be able to match a cat.”
But the unexpected can present problems. One night during a scene in Streetcar when the stage was supposed to go dark just as Anthony Quinn began to seduce Uta, the stage manager backstage had dozed off. The lights stayed on. Quinn was stunned and frozen. What could he do? “Rape me, you idiot,” whispered Uta. “Rape me!”
To young actors, Uta’s intensity can be awesome. Melinda Dillon, who won an Oscar nomination last year for her role in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was 23 when she found herself onstage with Uta in Virginia Woolf. It was an experience never to be forgotten. “I was absolutely terrified of her,” Dillon recalls. “She was a perfectionist, night after night. And she expected that kind of concentration, that kind of performance from everyone.”
Uta’s husband says, “She is not a halfway woman. She laughs a lot, loves a lot, curses a lot.” “Yes,” admits Uta with a deep chortle. “I get more loudmouthed every year.”
After 27 years of marriage, Berghof still regards her with wonder. “She has an absolute sense of what matters in life, and what doesn’t. She does only what she wants to do. She gives herself totally to the idea of being married. But we’re not dependent on each other. We’re together out of choice.”
Years ago Berghof took Uta to Rome while he was making Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor (he played Ptolemy’s tutor). Last year Uta returned the treat, insisting that he accompany her to London while she did her scene with Olivier. As an extra spree she whisked him over to his birthplace, Vienna, for Christmas. “We ate chocolate torte, went to museums, concerts, beer halls,” says Berghof, and he adds with gusto, “She paid everything!”
Uta has just finished a highly unorthodox autobiography. She doesn’t list her successes, or even name her two husbands. Instead she savors and smells, hugs and rolls in the wide world of nature she loved as a child. And she pays tribute to her mother, whose wise words sound like Uta’s recipe for living: “Breathe deeply, look hard, listen well, touch gently, taste all. Embrace, help, be thankful. And when you feel, express it.”
Does Uta miss being a busy star? Not much. She has avoided the inactivity that bedevils other mature American actresses (Katharine Hepburn, Irene Worth, Bette Davis), who find it hard to get roles worthy of their rank. Uta can afford to be especially picky. When a producer calls up to offer her a role, her husband whispers as she goes to the phone, “Now Uta, we have so many enemies, turn it down gracefully.”
In setting delicious food before her friends, Uta finds a new kind of applause. “Watch the pleasure on their faces,” she says, “and you’ll be a cook for life.” Now a grandmother, Uta gets increasing energy from benefiting other people. “Be free to function for somebody else,” she declares. “The rewards are boundless.”
Yet the demands can be unusual sometimes. When her toy poodle, Bambina, was pregnant, the vet warned Uta that cuddled pets often make “rotten mothers” and need special help giving birth. The moment of delivery arrived; Bambina was being driven to the doctor. As Uta held the dog in the back seat of the car, the first-born pup dropped into her lap. It was dead.
When the second was born, alive, the mother hardly noticed it, and Uta had to take over. She quickly bit off the umbilical cord, and the dog she rescued is now part of the household, sharing the good life.