Jean Hagen

Active - 1949 - 2016  |   Born - Aug 3, 1923 in Chicago, Illinois, United States  |   Died - Aug 29, 1977   |   Genres - Drama, Comedy

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Biography by Hal Erickson

After majoring in drama and music at Northwestern University, Jean Hagen went to New York, where she worked as an usherette by day and a radio actress by night. In 1949, Hagen was one of several "new face" Broadway performers (including Judy Holliday, Tom Ewell and David Wayne) selected to appear in the supporting cast of the Tracy/Hepburn comedy Adam's Rib; she played the slatternly "other woman" who comes between Judy Holliday and Tom Ewell. This led to a long-term MGM contract and a telling dramatic role as Sterling Hayden's doomed girlfriend in John Huston's Asphalt Jungle (1950). In 1952, Hagen was cast in her best-ever screen role: screechy-voiced silent film star Lina Lamont ("Waddya think I am, dumb or sumpin'?") in the imperishable Singin' in the Rain. From 1953 through 1956, Hagen played Margaret Williams, wife of nightclub entertainer Danny Thomas, in Make Room for Daddy. Her character was summarily "killed off" when she left the series in its third season; according to Thomas, Hagen felt that sitcom work was beneath her. Unfortunately, with such notable exceptions as The Shaggy Dog (1959) and Sunrise at Campobello (1960), Hagen's career went into an eclipse after Make Room for Daddy, and by 1964 she had retired from acting. As historian Bill Warren observed, Hagen "was so versatile that, paradoxically, she became hard to cast." In the mid-1970s, after undergoing radical surgery and cobalt treatment for throat cancer, Hagen valiantly attempted a comeback in character roles. Jean Hagen died at the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital at the age of 54.

Movie Highlights

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  • Was the understudy for Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday on Broadway.
  • Made her film debut in Adam's Rib (1949), opposite Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.
  • Life-long friends with actress Patricia Neal.
  • Chose to leave her co-starring role on Make Room for Daddy after three seasons to avoid future typecasting as a wife.
  • Died of throat cancer in 1977 after undergoing a controversial treatment called Laetrile in Germany.