Herbert Berghof: The Early Years

April 2, 2024 at 7:00pm

at HB Playwrights Theatre
124 Bank St, New York

Learn about Herbert’s 12 years in Vienna, Berlin and Paris in roles such as Hamlet and plays including You Can’t Take it With You and Six Characters in Search of an Author. In addition to acting, he began his directing career as founder and director of the Vienna Kleinkunstbüehne for five years where he directed Kjeld Abels’s The Lost Melody.

You’ll also find out about his teaching in New York at the Dramatic Workshop, his own studio, The Neighborhood Playhouse and American Theatre Wing as well as his performances on Broadway where he appeared in starring roles in Nathan the Wise and other plays and his years in musicals such as Oklahoma! and Miss Liberty. 

Herbert Berghof in Oklahoma!

Actor, Director, and Master Teacher, Herbert Berghof was born in Vienna, Austria to Paul and Regina (Sternberg) Berghof on September 13, 1909. He attended the University of Vienna and the Vienna State Academy of Dramatic Art where he received a diploma in 1927. For the next eleven years, Berghof played more than 120 roles in the leading theaters in Vienna, Berlin, Zurich, and Paris, including the Salzburg Festival production of Jedermann (Everyman) in 1937. He worked with actors such as Luise Rainer, Helene Thimig, Albert Bassermann, and Oscar Homolka and was directed by Max Reinhardt, Erwin Piscator, and Otto Preminger. Berghof was the founder of the Vienna Kleinkunstbuehne and was their director from 1933 to 1938. Perhaps his most notable production for this group was Kjeld Abel’s The Lost Melody (1938).

After fleeing the Nazis in 1938, Berghof immigrated to the United States in 1939. He found work as a teacher at Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop at the New School for Social Research, and the Neighborhood Playhouse. In 1940, Berghof staged the musical revues From Vienna at the Music Box Theatre and Reunion in New York (also performing) at the Little Theatre; Lotte Goslar and Lothar Metzl also performed. Sometime after coming to the United States, Berghof married Alice Hermes, but the marriage ended in divorce (date uncertain).

Erwin Piscator cast him as The Fool in King Lear at the New School (1940) and Berghof appeared on Broadway in the title role of Nathan the Wise (Belasco Theatre, 1942). Berghof’s extensive Broadway appearances include The Innocent Voyage with Oscar Homolka (1943), The Man Who Had All the Luck (Arthur Miller’s first play on Broadway) (Forrest Theatre, 1944), Ghosts and Hedda Gabler with Eva Le Gallienne (Cort Theatre, 1948), Miss Liberty (Imperial Theatre, 1949), The Deep Blue Sea with Margaret Sullavan (Morosco Theatre, 1952), The Andersonville Trial, directed by José Ferrer with George C. Scott and Albert Dekker, (Henry Miller’s Theatre, 1959), and In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Vivian Beaumont Theatre, 1969). He also appeared in numerous stock productions such as Design for Living with Kitty Carlisle (1943) and The Guardsman with Jeanette MacDonald and Gene Raymond, directed by Sam Wanamaker (1951).

He performed in many of the “Golden Age of Television” series in the 1950s, such as Goodyear Television Playhouse, Studio One, Philco Television Playhouse, and Playhouse 90. Berghof also appeared in Kojak: The Belarus File (1985). Movie appearances include Five Fingers (1952), Red Planet Mars (1952), Fraülein (1958), Cleopatra (1963), Harry and Tonto (1974), Those Lips, Those Eyes (1980), and Target (1985). Berghof also worked in radio, appearing in several of the Theatre Guild on the Air broadcasts in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

In 1956, Berghof directed the American premiere of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at the John Golden Theatre, starring Bert Lahr and longtime Berghof associate, E.G. Marshall. He repeated the assignment in 1957 with the first all-black cast, starring Geoffrey Holder, Earle Hyman, Rex Ingram, and Mantan Moreland at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Berghof’s numerous directing credits include Pavel Kohout’s Poor Murderer with Laurence Luckinbill and Maria Schell (Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 1976), and Charlotte by Peter Hacks, translated and adapted by Berghof, and starring Uta Hagen and Charles Nelson Reilly (Belasco Theatre, 1980).

For almost three decades, Berghof also directed and developed dozens of productions and staged readings at HB Playwrights Foundation. He also translated and adapted numerous scripts for production, such as The Apollo of Bellac by Jean Giraudoux (1954), Rainer Maria Rilke’s Daily Life (ca.1954), Portuguese Letters (1976), and Do I Know You? (An Improvisation on a Short Story by Robert Louis Stevenson), Berghof’s final project (1990).

Berghof had begun holding his own acting classes at a rented space on West 16th Street in 1945; by 1965, these classes would evolve into the HB Studio and HB Playwrights Foundation, now housed in three buildings on Bank Street, with an international reputation as one of the pre-eminent programs in the field. In 1947, Berghof was named a charter member of the Actors Studio, but broke with the studio because of philosophical differences. His future wife, Uta Hagen, also began teaching with him that year. Their philosophy was always to keep fees as low as possible (often causing financial difficulties) and to remain an experimental laboratory for new techniques.

Productions and play readings were also part of the program, from readings of works by Saul Bellow, Thornton Wilder, Horton Foote, and Bertolt Brecht, to a complete season of full productions and readings by the HB Playwrights Foundation, formed in 1965 and continuing to the present. Both students and seasoned actors performed in works by new and established playwrights.

HB Studio alumni include countless notables in theater, film, and television such as F. Murray Abraham, Anne Bancroft, Matthew Broderick, Billy Crystal, Robert De Niro, Robert Culp, Sandy Dennis, Lee Grant, David Hedison, Harvey Korman, Jack Lemmon, Anne Meara, Liza Minnelli, Geraldine Page, Charles Nelson Reilly, Maureen Stapleton, Jerry Stiller, Edward Villella, and Fritz Weaver, to name but a few. Berghof also taught at Columbia University in 1960 and for the American Theatre Wing in 1949.

He died at his home at the age of 81 of a heart ailment on November 5, 1990.


Matthew Conlon trained for the theater under HB’s Walt Witcover at SUNY Purchase and studied at HB Studio with Uta Hagen and Herbert Berghof over the subsequent ten years.  He last appeared in the thriller Strictly Murder at the Hampton Theatre Company. HB Playwrights: The Game of Love and Death (w/ Herbert Berghof); Freud’s Last Session (w/ Fritz Weaver); The Old House; The Play’s the Thing; The Chase; Lady with a Lapdog; Summertime; Holding Hands – (2X); Peace and War; South; and Off-Shore Wind. Other NYC — Sonnet Rep: The Tempest. EST: The Traveling Lady (Drama Desk nomination – Best Play). LaMama: A Human Equation.  PS 122: The Surface Equilibrium…. REGIONAL — Bay Street: The Crucible; Men’s Lives. Patchogue: The Diary of Anne Frank. Penobscot: To Kill a Mockingbird. Cleveland PlayHouse: The Importance of Being Earnest. O’Neill: Fuddy Meers. StageWest: Suddenly Last Summer (w/ Kim Hunter). Mendelssohn: Oedipus Rex. Recent Film: The Redeemer; Fire Island; Sweet Lorraine TV: Distemper; Law & Order(s); One Life to Live.

Jesse Feiler studied playwriting with Herbert Berghof and later served as an early director of HB Playwrights Foundation. He wrote the first play produced in HB Playwrights Theater (directed by Herbert). Later, in  the nonprofit world, he served as founder of Friends of Saranac River Trail and also served on a number of public library boards. Interested in community development, he has served on boards such as City of Plattsburgh Planning Board and Village of Philmont Zoning Board of Appeals. He was founder of the Philmont Main Street Committee and served as co-chair of the Village of Philmont Comprehensive Plan Board. He is co-author with Gail B. Nayowith of The Nonprofit Risk Book published by DeGruyter. He has developed a number of apps and has written several books for Apple software as well as Database-Driven Web Sites and related books in the early days of the Web. His publishing projects include Josef Albers Interaction of Color for the Albers Foundation and  books for his company, Champlain Arts including Uta Hagen’s memoir Sources and The Studio Story. In addition, he served as editor of the expanded version of Uta Hagen’s classic book, Respect for Acting.


HB Studio’s programs are supported in part by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council, and many generous supporters.