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No matter where actress Julie Hagerty lives, she’ll always be a New Yorker

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

Her voice is light, still inherently girlish. Her laugh is light, as well, and easy to trigger. Most of the movie roles she’s been assigned, perhaps most memorably the befuddled stewardess she played in both “Airplane” movies, have been on the light side.

That’s why it’s so easy to miss one of the most salient facts about Julie Hagerty. In repose, when she’s thinking or talking about something serious, something close to her generous heart, it becomes surprisingly, even shockingly, clear that the 47-year-old actress, currently wrapping up a substantial run in director Daniel Sullivan’s revival of Paul Osborne’s “Morning’s at Seven,” possesses one of the truly beautiful faces of the age.

If you can catch her when she’s not smiling, which she generally is, and if she’s not wearing makeup, and if her tawny brown hair is pulled back, as you gaze at the planes of her face and at her large blue-green eyes, you may find yourself thinking of some of the classic photographs of Greta Garbo.

That, in and of itself, is surprising, since Hagerty’s image, if she can be said to have one, is simple and straightforward, something suitable to, say, the slightly older sister of the star college quarterback.

The role she’s playing these days at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre, the nervously unmarried Myrtle Brown, trembling on the knife edge of permanent spinsterhood, could all too easily have emerged as a comic clichT of gag book dimensions.

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That she doesn’t is a real tribute to the compassionate and gentle understanding with which Hagerty has investigated the role.

At one point during rehearsals, director Sullivan asked Hagerty what she thought Myrtle did for a living in North Lyons, the small Middle Western town where Homer Bolton, her reluctant fiancT, had found her. “She works in the circulation department of the local newspaper,” the actress responded without missing a beat, so quickly, in fact, that the bright, tough-minded Sullivan was thrown for a bit of a loss.

Hagerty, the youngest of three children of a Cincinnati saxophone player and his wife, might easily have evolved into some version of Myrtle Brown, had her fresh, girl-next-door beauty not paved a path to New York when she was still in her middle teens.

“I came here when I was only 16,” she recalled over a soft drink in a Lincoln Center office one day last week. “I did some photographic modeling, but I wasn’t very good at it, and I didn’t like doing it. Besides, what I wanted to do was act.”

It would be difficult to imagine Hagerty with any extra pounds on her, but she maintains that her appetite hampered her career as a model. “I could eat my way out of every job,” she said, “so I ended up doing a lot of shampoo commercials.”

It wasn’t that the Irish-American girl from Ohio was a glutton, but rather that in Cincinnati she was unfamiliar with the food she found so abundant once she’d crossed the Hudson.

“I’d never had a bagel,” she said, “and Chinese food, and I thought asparagus lived in a can, even though I was from Ohio. The only good thing about being a model was that it got me out of Cincinnati.

Kim, the youngest of Hagerty’s two brothers, is 49, and still lives there, working in a bank to support his family, meanwhile pursuing his preferred career in music. Of her eldest brother, Michael, she says, simply and without adornment, “He would be 51 if he were still alive. He died of AIDS 11 years ago.”

Michael Hagerty is still very much a part of his little sister’s life, just as he always was. Michael, who studied theater at Carnegie Tech and was following an acting career when he fell ill, is really a primary force behind Julie Hagerty’s success as a performer.

After she grew tired of modeling, Hagerty spent a year in Paris, and then came home to Cincinnati.

“I thought I’d live at home and go to school,” she said.

But Michael had other plans. “He’d just graduated from Carnegie Tech,” she said, “and he came and got me in a U-Haul truck. He said, ‘We’re going back to New York. You’re not going to stay in Cincinnati.’ ”

The siblings shared an apartment on West 75th Street, between West End and Riverside. “I felt safe because I was with my brother,” she said. “Before that, I’d lived in studio apartments and slept on foam mats, and then I moved into a girls’ residence, St. Mary’s on East 72nd Street, and lived there. I just kind of roamed around, and I think at such a young age it was confusing and tiring, so I went home. I was there about a month when Michael came and got me.”

The year was 1977 or ’78, and Hagerty’s brother, along with writer Craig Lucas and the late director Norman Rene, opened an off-Broadway group called the Production Company, and she started working there.

“I did whatever was available to do,” she said. “I sold tickets, built sets and scrubbed floors and then one day, Norman asked me to read for a play by Robert Patrick. It was called ‘Mutual Benefit Life,’ and it was the first play I ever did in New York.”

The Production Company, at that point, had a small space on 18th Street, and it was there, when she was acting in the Patrick play, that a casting agent for Paramount Pictures saw Hagerty and arranged for a screen test for the first “Airplane,” a 1980 comedy that people, on meeting the actress, almost invariably bring up.

Hagerty lived in New York for 24 years, and still refers to herself as “a real, dyed-in-the-wool Upper West Sider,” but four or five years ago her life changed completely. Married and divorced when she was a bit younger, she was working in California when she met an insurance executive named Richard Kagan, the father of a son and a daughter who were, by then, nearly grown.

“I finally have children,” she said, referring to her husband of three years as “kind, smart, amazing” and “wonderful.” He’s also devoted to the theater, a passion that has led to his becoming chairman of the board of the Ahmanson Theatre.

As for the Kagan youngsters, Josh is 22 and has recently been accepted by the London School of Economics, after graduation from Connecticut’s Wesleyan University. His sister, Kelly, is 28, and is a child psychologist.

“I never got to have children,” Hagerty said. “They’re not my children. They have a wonderful mother, but I feel very lucky to be able to share in their lives. They’re both just wonderful human beings.”

Hagerty is abundantly aware of her good fortune. “I’m so happy in my life,” she said. “It’s the first time for me that I’ve really had a family of my own, and that’s really important to me. It’s the first time for me that being home is more important than any thing else. I live to work, and Richard is very supportive of me in that respect. I’ve always felt very grateful just to be in this business, but at times, I felt as though I were running away to work.”

In the five months that have passed since “Morning’s at Seven” opened, Hagerty has been part of another sort of “family,” a company of performers, Piper Laurie, Elizabeth Franz, Buck Henry, Frances Sternhagen, Estelle Parsons and the others, in a play that requires and profits from the slightly ephemeral thing known as “ensemble acting.”

The company does, in fact, get along remarkably well, and the closing, scheduled for July 28, would normally be an occasion of sorrow and loss for Hagerty and the others. But it’s really not.

The actress will return to New York in October for a stretch of rehearsals for a production of Henrik Ibsen’s “The Master Builder,” involving Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn. This particular “Master Builder,” already five years in rehearsal, may or may not eventually face an audience.

“Morning’s at Seven,” however, has a definite future. The company will reassemble in Los Angeles in December for a couple of months at the Ahmanson.

“I would be so sad if, on the 28th, I were saying goodbye to everyon,” Hagerty said. “I’d be devastated, but this way, it’s sort of like we’re going to take a little separation and then start up again, which is terrific.”

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