Mental Floss's 40 Favorite Stories of 2019

Yoyochow23/iStock via Getty Images
Yoyochow23/iStock via Getty Images

In any given year, Mental Floss publishes upwards of 5000 stories—from short news posts to in-depth lists to longform features to oral histories and everything in between. And while our readers have made their favorite stories of 2019 known, now it’s our staff’s turn. In case you missed any of them, these were our favorite stories to write, edit, read, and share with all of you over the past 12 months.

1. Man Opens Can of Beans, Finds Just One Bean

Sometimes a story comes along that is so random and un-news-worthy that it actually becomes news-worthy. Ellen Gutoskey's harrowing tale of a man in England who came home hungry one night after a long day and tore into a can of beans only to find "a pathetic, lone bean drowned in a sea of savory-yet-unsatisfying bean juice" is the perfect example of just such a story. —Jennifer M. Wood

2. How Harry Houdini Tricked Theodore Roosevelt

harry houdini and theodore roosevelt aboard the ss imperator
Harry Houdini and Theodore Roosevelt aboard the SS Imperator.
Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

We'd briefly featured this encounter between two larger-than-life historical figures in a list, and while I'd hoped to fit it into the first season of our History Vs. podcast, it didn't quite fit anywhere. But it was too good a story not to tell in full, and Ellen Gutoskey did a phenomenal job of spelling out Houdini's trickery—and TR's gullibility. —Erin McCarthy

3. 10 Examples of the Mandela Effect

I knew that “No, I am your father” from 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back is often misquoted as “Luke, I am your father,” which I thought was a weird, kind of cute, definitely isolated incident. Finding out from Jake Rossen’s article that there’s an entire category of collective false memories was extremely jarring and also—because I love to remind my brain that it’s not as great as it thinks it is—very fun! —Ellen Gutoskey

4. Bessie Coleman, the Black Cherokee Female Pilot Who Made Aviation History

Photo illustration of Bessie Coleman.
Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain

Michele Debczak delivered a touching tribute to this little-known aviator, who broke boundaries and refused to be discouraged from following her passion. It's the story we all sometimes need to read as a reminder that determination and grit can take you to places you've never been. —Jake Rossen

5. The One Where Jennifer Aniston's 'Rachel' Haircut on Friends Became a Phenomenon

In honor of the 25th anniversary of the premiere of Friends, Jay Serafino investigated an aspect of the show that had a huge impact: Jennifer Aniston's haircut. I'm not exactly a Friends super-fan, but I do love stories that answer questions about random pop culture trends that I would never think to ask. And this was definitely one of them. —Michele Debczak

6. Anthony Daniels Finally Explains the Mystery of That Obscene C-3PO Trading Card

The torso of 'Star Wars' droid C-3PO is pictured

Kory westerhold, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

I don’t often get starstruck, but when I saw that Jake Rossen had actually talked to C-3PO himself, Anthony Daniels, I shot out about a half-dozen texts to friends and family. And to think that we actually got the scoop behind Threepio’s phallic trading card mishap—well, 11-year-old me couldn’t be prouder. —Jay Serafino

7. The Story of Kate Warne, America's First Female Private Detective

In the 1800s, a time when women didn’t have many rights, let alone opportunities, Kate Warne made her own way. After fighting her way into law enforcement, Warne became the first female private detective in America. She went on to solve cases of theft, thwart a murder plot, and—most importantly—help President Abraham Lincoln journey through secessionist territory safely. But despite all of Warne’s work, there’s a surprisingly small amount of information out there about her. So, while it’s compelling to read about her cases, Warne’s story is an important one to tell to ensure that women who helped pave the way for better opportunities are not erased from history. —Kristen Richard

8. Happy Little Mystery Solved: We Finally Know What Happened to All of Bob Ross’s Paintings

Bob Ross painting landscape.
Bob Ross Inc.

Back in 2012, we ran a story titled “What Happened to Bob Ross’ Paintings?” This year, we finally got an answer to that question. And as Michele Debczak reported, the answer might have been sitting right in front of us all along: they're in a regular storage room (no climate-controlled environment for these works of art) at Bob Ross Inc. headquarters in northern Virginia. Mystery solved! —JMW

9. When Harriet Tubman Helped Lead a Civil War Raid That Freed 750 People

Harriet Tubman was a majestic badass (I don't use this word lightly) with a moral compass any of us would be lucky to possess. She saved hundreds of people even though she was triply oppressed: a woman, a person of color, and suffering from serious medical issues. This story about a Civil War raid she helped lead is just one small but fascinating piece of her life story, but I think it's a must-read. Also, if I can put on my editor's hat for a second, Brigit Katz turned in a perfect piece in a tight timeframe and meticulously linked on her facts; an editor's dream. —Bess Lovejoy

10. Venus Flytraps in Peril: Why Everyone's Favorite Carnivorous Houseplant is Under Threat

Bunch of Venus flytraps.
protechpr/iStock via Getty Images

I can't go to a flea market or county fair and consider buying a Venus flytrap after reading Michele Debczak's's exposé of the myriad factors threatening these carnivorous cuties. Not only did she reveal an ecosystem of poachers, traders, and climatic changes affecting their survival; we also meet the botanists and conservationists trying to save the li'l native plants. But the buck ultimately stops with consumers, who will want to avoid buying Venus flytraps after reading this powerful feature. —Kat Long

Before this story, I had no idea that Venus flytraps can only be found wild in one 75-mile stretch of the Carolinas. Michele seamlessly blends crime and environmentalism in a story that's full of surprises, whether she's discussing the beneficial effects of controlled burns or how the commercial popularity of flytraps grown in a lab could be endangering the ones in the wild. —BL

11. Could Gigantic Coconut Crabs Have Played a Part in Amelia Earhart’s Mysterious Disappearance?

At least one scientist and one Mental Floss staff writer think so, actually. As far-fetched as this headline seems, the evidence in the article is strangely compelling. Basically, scientists found U.S.-made artifacts on the island of Nikumaruro, and bone-sniffing dogs confirmed that a human had died at the site. However, since Earhart’s remains have never been found, it’s been suggested that giant coconut crabs have scattered them across the island. I’m waiting for the next bit of news to break in this case like I used to wait for the next Harry Potter book to come out. —EG

12. How Did Casper the Friendly Ghost Die?

A still from Casper (1995)
Universal Pictures

Growing up, I loved Casper the Friendly Ghost—the cartoons, the comics, the movie—yet the implications of him being a ghost never really occurred to me. Which would or should mean that he likely met some sort of untimely death at a young age. Leave it to Jake Rossen to point this out during an editorial brainstorm, and happily volunteer to do a deep dive into Casper's history to dig up any clues about how this friendly spirit met his ultimate demise. —JMW

13. 11 Things We No Longer See in Schools

This piece made me so nostalgic for rifling through the card catalog in the school library, writing on the chalkboard, and, yes, even gym glass (although in my day, the dodgeball balls were rubber, not foam). —EM

14. Who Has Jurisdiction Over Crimes Committed in Space?

An illustration depicts a skeleton inside of an astronaut suit
nedelcupaul/iStock via Getty Images

I'll let Jake Rossen's introduction to this fascinating feature speak for itself: "It's 2050. Humans have mastered commercial space travel. Hundreds of people pay thousands of dollars to be sent into orbit in a spaceship. Maybe some decide to help colonize Mars. Then, trouble. A jilted spouse. A smuggled firearm. Perhaps a struggle followed by suffocation. A space traveler is found dead on board a ship or on the Red Planet. Who has jurisdiction over such crimes?" With his patented blend of humor and dead seriousness, Jake adroitly broke down an issue that world leaders should consider when and if humans begin regularly visiting our neighbors in the solar system. —KL

15. When Taco Bell Tried (And Failed) to Conquer Mexico

What constitutes "authentic" cuisine, and does authenticity always matter? These were the questions Taco Bell faced while attempting to infiltrate the Mexican market. The fact that Taco Bell never caught on in the home of the taco may not be surprising, but the tactics the company used when trying to build a presence south of the border make for a fascinating bit of fast food history. —MD

16. Frost Bite: When Sub-Zero Temperatures Shattered an Antarctic Explorer's Teeth

An image of Antarctic explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard.
The History Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

I don’t have a lot of phobias, but the ones I do have are kind of odd and very specific: Being attacked by a squirrel is one of them, and having my teeth shatter is another. So Erin McCarthy had me hooked from the title with this story about Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a 20th century explorer whose teeth actually shattered from the sub-zero temperatures he was forced to contend with while on a scientific mission in Antarctica. Erin’s detailed recap of his adventures had me engrossed, and grossed out, in equal parts. —JMW

17. The Time the U.S. Government Banned Sliced Bread

The government has probably tried to ban everything at one time or another, but sliced bread seems a little excessive even for them. Lucas Reilly takes an eye-catching headline and then eases the reader into a world where, yes, this almost happened—and it sounds surprisingly sane. Any piece that utilizes the phrase "baking regulations" and expounds on the "stern measures" the feds were aiming to use against Big Bread is worth your time. —JR

18. 11 Secrets of Lexicographers

Open pages of a dictionary.
Fotokresba/iStock via Getty Images

We here at Mental Floss are obsessed with words, from old-timey slang to words just added to the dictionary—so to be able to go behind-the-scenes with the people who put the words in dictionaries was especially thrilling. —EM

19. Unraveling the History of Human Hair

Hair: most of us have it, but have you ever thought deeply about how it came to be on your head? Freelancer Lorraine Boissoneault did, and returned with a fascinating dive into the little-known evolution of human hair. We've barely begun to study hair, it turns out; researchers are just starting to come up with systems to describe hair types, colors, and textures. Meanwhile, DNA evidence from hair is revealing more about us and how humans have lived over millennia. After reading Lorraine's story, you'll never watch an episode of Forensic Files the same way again. —KL

20. 30 Years Later: The Great Milli Vanilli Hoax

Milli Vanilli, portraits, London, 27 September 1988, L-R Rob Pilatus, Fab Morvan
Michael Putland/Getty Images

After making a Milli Vanilli reference that fell pretty flat, I realized that the most notorious band of the '90s is no longer a universally known quantity. And I needed to make sure that Mental Floss could do its part to right that wrong. As usual, music writer Ken Partridge was up for digging into the history of the Grammy-winning duo and writing a great piece on exactly what went down during, and after, one of the music industry's greatest hoaxes was made public. —JMW

21. The Sea Waif: A Murder on the Ocean and the Little Girl Who Stayed Alive

Deanna Cioppa is a fantastic writer—every word is sure and strong. I was captivated by this story of an 11-year-old girl whose family was murdered at sea in 1961, and who survived for several days afterward on the open ocean in a tiny life raft. Not only that, the girl—Terry Jo Duperrault—went on to live a fulfilling life, and wrote a book about her whole ordeal. If that's not fortitude, I don't know what is. —BL

22. Alien Encounter: The Life and Death of Walt Disney World's Scariest Ride Ever

Sign outside ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter.
Sam Howzit, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Michele Debczak has a knack for backstories. And when she started talking about the history of Walt Disney World's Alien Encounter—a "ride" I experienced firsthand back in the early '90s—we knew we had a fascinating story on our hands. As always, she delivered exactly that. —JMW

23. 15 Things You Might Not Have Known About the RMS Titanic

Kat Long’s wealth of knowledge about the RMS Titanic makes you think she might’ve been a consultant on the James Cameron’s 1997 movie (she wasn’t—in fact, she’s never even seen it!). From what survivors thought after the collision to what went down at the inquiry, her list of little-known facts is so full of detail and intrigue that you’ll likely want to share it with everyone you’ve ever talked to. —EG

24. What's the Difference Between Cement and Concrete?

Concrete being poured from tube.
Vladimir Kokorin/iStock via Getty Images

Thanks to many years spent editing at Popular Mechanics, using the terms cement and concrete interchangeably is one of my pet peeves. I'm thrilled we published something that sets the record straight! —EM

25. Cats Make Facial Expressions, But Not Everyone Can Read Them

I love cats, but like many people, I've always felt like I've never quite understood them. So it was interesting to learn that they not only have different facial expressions, but that pretty much the only people who could read them spent a lot of time around felines, further showing cats are just as complex as we thought. —KR

26. The Bizarre Tale of the Orca II, the Stunt Boat from Jaws

A mechanical shark attacks the replica 'Orca II' boat during filming of 1975's 'Jaws'
Courtesy of Jaws: Memories from Martha's Vineyard // Photo by Lynn and Susan Murphy

As someone who has never seen 1975's Jaws (sorry!), I started reading this article thinking it would be an interesting bit of pop culture with a little extra narrative flair, courtesy of Jake Rossen. But it was more than just a cool story—by the end, I felt like the Orca II was a lifelong pet that I had just watched slowly die. Like Jake says, it’s a “lesson in the fragility of cultural artifacts.” But also, surprisingly upbeat! —EG

27. How Thomas Jefferson's Obsession with Mastodons Partly Fueled the Lewis and Clark Expedition

Emily Petsko's funny and thought-provoking feature describes the study of natural history in the United States at the turn of the 19th century, led by our most scientifically minded president, Thomas Jefferson. In his effort to establish scientific inquiry in the new nation, Jefferson started a beef with the French naturalist Comte de Buffon and instructed Lewis and Clark to hunt down a mastodon to show up the European intellectuals. I love how Emily's story captures this unexpected slice of early American history. —KL

28. The 15 Best TV Series Finales of All Time

Bryan Cranston in the 'Breaking Bad' series finale
Ursula Coyote, AMC

As the final season of Game of Thrones began approaching this year, there was a lot of talk about how it would all play out and whether or not David Benioff and D.B. Weiss's finale would go down as one of the greatest of all time (spoiler alert: it didn't). But that got us talking about other series finales, and the creative tightrope walk that creating a great one truly is. The always-thoughtful Matthew Jackson did a fantastic job of breaking down some of the best finales of all time (I myself am torn between Six Feet Under and Breaking Bad), which sparked a lot of chatter—and some heated debates—among our readers (and ok, maybe among some staffers, too). —JMW

29. Cold Case: Revisiting Houston's Infamous Ice Box Murders

This one has everything you could want from a crime story: the corpses of an elderly couple stuffed inside a refrigerator, a baffled police force, and the mysterious son who went AWOL right before his parents’ heads were found in the vegetable crisper. It’s the quintessential tale of murder in a small town, but what makes this one really stand out is the lead image Jake Rossen found on Getty. —JS

30. 10 Forgotten Rankin/Bass Christmas Specials

A scene from Rudolph's Shiny New Year (1976)
A scene from Rudolph's Shiny New Year (1976).
Rankin/Bass Productions

I have never forgotten—oh, how I wish I could!—the bushy-eyebrowed nightmare of a vulture from 1976’s Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, but I had definitely forgotten every other Rankin/Bass special on this list. Michele Debczak's article unearthed a lot of cherished childhood memories for me, and also made me realize I was much less of a film critic as a five-year-old. —EG

31. When Theodore Roosevelt's Antique Gun Was Stolen From Sagamore Hill

When Tyler Kuliberda told me about this theft while I was visiting Sagamore Hill for the History Vs. podcast, I knew we had to write about it. Jake Rossen does a phenomenal job weaving together the narrative of the firearm, from its manufacture to its time on the Maine to its use by TR in the Spanish-American War—and, of course, its two disappearances. There's no better story for true crime addicts who also love TR. —EM

32. 6 Puzzling Anachronisms That Made It Into Shakespeare’s Plays

shakespeare impersonator at a laptop
iofoto/iStock via Getty Images

William Shakespeare may be widely considered one of the greatest writers to ever walk the Earth, but Ellen Gutoskey's rundown of a handful of tiny little mistakes he made in terms of time and place serve as a kind of nice reminder that nobody's perfect. —JMW

33. The Reason Behind Those Brightly Colored Balls Along Power Lines

Life is full of things we see so often they become invisible, which makes Ellen Gutoskey's story about the motivation behind those pervasive orange spheres so interesting. Of course we guess they have some kind of identification purpose, but the details throw the reader for a bit of a loop. It's the kind of story you read and immediately want to share. —JR

34. Why Little Women Still Matters, More Than 150 Years Later

Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh and Eliza Scanlen in Little Women (2019)
Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen in Greta Gerwig's Little Women (2019).
Wilson Webb / © 2019 CTMG, Inc.

We're at the end of 2019 and Little Women is in the news once again because of Greta Gerwig's newest film adaptation. The greatest stories are those that somehow transcend time, even if they're set in a very specific one. And as Garin Pirnia reminds us here, the fact that we're still not just talking about Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, but analyzing it through a modern-day lens, says much about this masterwork. —JMW

35. How Does Alberta, Canada, Stay Rat-Free?

A question you’ve surely been wondering about for decades, at least. As someone well-acquainted with subway rats, street rats, and every other subcategory of rat besmirching my beloved Manhattan, this article almost made me up and move to Alberta, Canada. The province's commitment to keeping the rats away is the best real-life fairytale I’ve ever heard. —EG

36. The Best Offbeat Museums to Visit in All 50 States

The exterior of The Idaho Potato Museum in Blackfoot, Idaho
The exterior of The Idaho Potato Museum in Blackfoot, Idaho.
Courtesy of The Idaho Potato Museum

I loved featuring so many unusual museums in one piece—and in fact, I have it bookmarked so that I can make sure to visit these weird and wonderful places whenever I find myself in the vicinity. And, after years of griping that we never feature D.C. on these lists, we finally listened! —EM

37. 8 of the Most Notorious Art Forgeries in History

I love stories about frauds, fakes, and things that are not as they seem. I was fascinated by Allison Meier's story of a family of art forgers in northern England who managed to pass off as legit a 10th-century reliquary, an ancient Egyptian statue, and a faun sculpture by Paul Gauguin, among other items. Police estimate they made around $1.6 million off their charade, which fooled some of the most esteemed institutions around. Meier also mentions the gothic frescoes at the Marienkirche church in Germany, which were revealed during World War II bombing and then "miraculously" restored—at least until a local painter came forward and revealed that the restoration was almost entirely his own invention. His "refurbishment" included modeling some of the supposedly ancient figures on a 1930s Austrian actress, the Russian mystic Rasputin, and his own father. —BL

38. London on Ice: The Georgian Frost Fairs Held on the River Thames

Frost Fair on the River Thames in the 17th Century
Thomas Wyke, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain in the United States

We live in a world threatened by warming global temperatures, but it wasn't always this way. In fact, it used to get so cold that both elephants and Queen Elizabeth I could romp upon the frozen Thames. Writer Evan Lubofsky explains how London's climate at the tail end of the Little Ice Age gave rise to fabulous frost fairs, and how our changing Earth has made these wintertime celebrations a thing of the past—likely forever. Evan manages to entertain with a tale blending history, science, and our uncertain future. —KL

39. 13 Facts About the Chauvet Cave Paintings

I have always been interested in how humans have found ways to express themselves with art throughout history. So I was particularly fascinated to read Kat Long's article about the almost perfectly preserved Chauvet Cave paintings in France. Not only will this article teach you more about the 14 different animal species that can be found on the wall, but you’ll learn how the cave formed, the first modern humans who inhabited it, and a lot more. —KR

40. 10 Wild Scooby-Doo Fan Theories

When it comes to digging up wacky, weird, and sometimes downright morbid fan theories, Kristin Hunt is our go-to writer. And while she has uncovered all sorts of weird ideas about shows like Breaking Bad, The Office, 30 Rock, Friends, and Downton Abbey, the fact that so many people have put so much thought—much of it very dark indeed—into Scooby-Doo amazed me. And had me laughing out loud. —JMW

10 Impressive Facts About Dame Maggie Smith

Dave Hogan/Getty Images
Dave Hogan/Getty Images

While Dame Maggie Smith’s tenures as Harry Potter’s Professor Minerva McGonagall and Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess Violet Crawley might have made her one of the most internationally recognizable faces in entertainment, she’s really been delivering exceptional performances—in everything from uproarious comedies to somber dramas—for more than half a century.

Here are 10 fascinating details about the life and career of the iconic, relentless, 85-year-old living legend.

1. Maggie Smith’s parents weren’t keen on their daughter’s acting aspirations.

Margaret Natalie Smith was born on December 28, 1934, in Ilford, England, and grew up in Oxford, where her father worked as a University of Oxford lab technician. Smith’s parents were far from avid theatergoers, and her interest in the performing arts came as a surprise—even to her.

“Honest to God, I have no idea where the urge came from,” she told the Evening Standard in 2019. “It was such a ghastly time and we didn’t go to the theater. I got into terrible trouble once because the neighbors took me to the cinema on a Sunday.”

Smith’s mother, a secretary from Glasgow, Scotland, thought her daughter should follow in her secretarial footsteps, and doubted that she’d be a successful actress “with a face like that.”

2. Maggie Smith prefers the stage to the screen.

To most viewers, Maggie Smith’s memorable performances in Harry Potter and Downton Abbey are clear indications of her brilliant virtuosity as an actor. To Smith herself, however, those roles are practically just low-hanging fruit.

“I’m deeply grateful for the work in Harry Potter and indeed Downton but it wasn’t what you’d call satisfying. I didn’t really feel I was acting in those things.” she told the Evening Standard. “I wanted to get back to the stage so much because theater is basically my favorite medium.”

Apparently, she and Alan Rickman (who played Severus Snape) used to commiserate over their mutual feeling that their work in Harry Potter was nothing more than a series of reaction shots.

3. But Shakespeare isn’t Maggie Smith's thing.

Not only did a 17-year-old Maggie Smith begin her career as Viola in an Oxford Playhouse School production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, she went on to appear in countless Shakespeare plays during her time with Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre in the 1960s and Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival in the 1970s. She was even nominated for an Oscar for playing Desdemona in the 1965 film adaptation of Othello (which featured Olivier in the title role).

Despite her formidable résumé—and her self-proclaimed love for the stage—Smith maintains that the works of Shakespeare simply aren’t her cup of tea.

“Shakespeare is not my thing,” she told The Guardian.

4. Maggie Smith can sing, too.

Smith’s droll delivery and expressive gestures made her a shoo-in for satire and comedy roles in variety shows, and her early career was characterized by dynamic musical performances in revues—though Smith is self-deprecating about her own singing ability.

“I think Leonard was under this mad illusion that I could sing,” she told The New York Times, referring to when producer Leonard Sillman saw her in a West End revue and promptly cast her in his Broadway revue New Faces of 1956.

Smith hasn’t just sung on Broadway, either: She also belted a rousing rendition of the World War I recruiting song “I’ll Make a Man of You” in 1969’s Oh! What a Lovely War, and performed more than one highly amusing musical number on The Carol Burnett Show in the 1970s.

5. Maggie Smith has won a Tony, an Emmy, and an Academy Award—the Triple Crown of Acting.

Smith took home a Best Actress Oscar playing the titular character in 1969’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and won the Tony for Best Actress in a Play for her role as Lettice Douffet in the 1990 comedy Lettice and Lovage. In 2003, Smith finally clinched the Triple Crown with an Emmy win for the lead role in HBO’s television movie My House in Umbria.

Actors technically only need one of each award to be considered a Triple Crown winner, but Smith has a few extra, too. Among many nominations, she’s also won three Emmys for Downton Abbey and a 1978 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for California Suite.

6. Maggie Smith has been married twice.

maggie smith and robert stephens in 'travels with my aunt'
Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens in Travels With My Aunt (1972).
Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1952, Smith met playwright Beverley Cross at an Oxford student revue, and later performed in his 1960 play Strip the Willow. The two dated while waiting for Cross to finalize his divorce, but their relationship was interrupted when Smith joined Laurence Olivier’s National Theater and fell in love with another company member, Robert Stephens.

The couple married in 1967, and went on to appear together in 1969’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and 1972’s Travels With My Aunt. They had two children, Toby Stephens and Chris Larkin, before splitting in 1975. Smith and Cross married soon after that, and were together until Cross’s death in 1998.

“I’m remarkably fortunate,” Smith said, according to The New York Times. “When you meet again someone you should have married in the first place, it’s like a script. That kind of luck is too good to be true.”

7. Both of Maggie SMith's sons are actors.

Though Smith has said that she didn’t encourage her sons to act, they both followed in their mother’s footsteps. Her oldest, Toby Stephens, starred opposite Ruth Wilson in the 2006 miniseries Jane Eyre, and is perhaps best known for the role of Captain Flint in Starz’s Black Sails. Younger brother Chris, who guest-starred in Black Sails, is also set to appear in Outlander’s upcoming season 5.

8. Maggie Smith has teased Sir Ian McKellen on more than one occasion.

At the Academy Awards in 2002, Sir Ian McKellen explained to Maggie Smith that he had worn a traditional New Zealand pounamu pendant to bring him good luck in the Best Supporting Actor category—he had been nominated for playing Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

After he lost, he ran into Smith, who quipped: “It didn’t work, did it?”

Then, while recounting the story on The Graham Norton Show, McKellen did a riotously entertaining impression of Smith, which apparently wasn’t an isolated incident.

“He does them all the time,” she told the Evening Standard. “I rather acidly told him that I’d done one of him but people didn’t know him well enough to recognize it.”

9. Maggie Smith battled breast cancer while filming Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

In 2009, news broke that Maggie Smith had been undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer in the midst of filming the sixth Harry Potter film.

“I was hairless. I had no problem getting the wig on. I was like a boiled egg,” she told The Times. “I was holding on to railings, thinking ‘I can’t do this.’”

Though Smith confessed that the experience made her “fearful of the amount of energy one needs to be in a film or a play,” she never really took a break from working: She also appeared in 2009’s From Time to Time and 2010’s Nanny McPhee Returns, and reprised Professor McGonagall in 2011’s final Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.

10. Maggie Smith doesn’t ever plan on retiring.

Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Downton, in 'Downton Abbey'
Masterpiece

In a 2013 appearance on 60 Minutes, Smith shared that although she felt her theater days were behind her, she wouldn’t ever officially retire from film or television.

“I’ll keep going with Violet [from Downton Abbey] and any other old biddy that comes along,” she said.

As it turned out, her theater days weren’t over: Smith returned to the stage after a 12-year hiatus to portray Brunhilde Pomsel, secretary of Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, in 2019’s A German Life at London’s Bridge Theatre.

14 Amazing Facts About Lin-Manuel Miranda

Roy Rochlin/Getty Images
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

Do you follow Lin-Manuel Miranda on Twitter? If not, you should. The Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of Hamilton tweets prolifically—and delightfully—about his life and his work, dropping in inspirational messages along the way.

Twitter isn't the only place you can get a dose of Miranda these days: In addition to making the rounds at awards shows for his work as an executive producer on Fosse/Verdon (where he also made a memorable cameo as Roy Scheider), Miranda had a major role as Lee Scoresby in HBO's adaptation of His Dark Materials and had some fun playing a soldier in Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker.

This summer, Miranda will produce and star in the big-screen adaptation of his play In the Heights and is preparing to make his directorial debut with an adaptation of Jonathan Larson's musical tick, tick… BOOM. In celebration of Miranda's 40th birthday (Miranda was born in New York on January 16, 1980), here are some fun—and surprising—facts about the creative Renaissance man.

1. As a kid, Lin-Manuel Miranda couldn’t make it all the way through Mary Poppins.

A photo of Lin-Manuel Miranda at an event for Mary Poppins Returns.
Gareth Cattermole, Getty Images for Disney

In 2018, Lin-Manuel Miranda starred alongside Emily Blunt in Mary Poppins Returns—but he didn't see the original movie all the way through until he was an adult. Miranda recalled to Vanity Fair how, as a kid, certain songs would make him “burst into tears.” Those songs included Stevie Wonder's “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water," and a track from Mary Poppins.

“I couldn’t get through ‘Feed the Birds,’” he told Vanity Fair. “I was very sensitive to minor-key music, and that song was so sad that I don’t think I saw the ending of Mary Poppins until I was grown, because I would just cry. I loved ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.’ I loved Dick Van Dyke. I loved the whole movie but then that one song was so sad I kind of never survived it.”

2. Lin-manuel Miranda's talent for the dramatic was clear from an early age.

Miranda’s father, Luis, wanted his son to be a lawyer—but according to Playbill, it was clear after a young Lin-Manuel filmed an “infamous” video book report about Jean Merrill’s The Pushcart War in the third grade that he was destined for the stage, not the courtroom. Miranda posted the video to YouTube noting, “I got an A.” (You can enjoy it for yourself above.)

3. Lin-Manuel Miranda faked an injury to get out of summer camp.

Miranda—who was born and raised in New York City—did not enjoy his trips to summer camp. “Sending me to a place without electricity was a very bad idea,” he told Jimmy Kimmel.

Miranda wrote his parents letters from camp describing his malaise, and his flair for the dramatic was on full display: “Dear Mom and Dad, Please come and take me back to New York, away from this hellhole,” he wrote in one letter. In another—in which he called himself “the kid you ditched in the woods for a month”—he drew “a picture to remind you of me”: an image of himself jumping off a building. Miranda recounted to Kimmel that he finally escaped from summer camp by faking a spinal cord injury—and had to keep up the act all summer long.

4. Lin-Manuel Miranda was profoundly influenced by Rent creator Jonathan Larson’s work.

In a 2004 essay application for the Jonathan Larson Grant, Miranda wrote that seeing Larson's rock musical Rent on his 16th birthday “simply changed everything … Never had I seen a show that spoke to me so directly, that used fresh, new music as a way of addressing contemporary concerns in an honest way. By writing about his friends with the problems and anxieties he faced, Jonathan Larson gave me permission to write about my life, hopes, and fears.” The show inspired Miranda to write his first musical (more on that in a minute), which was then performed at his high school. After that, he never stopped writing.

It wasn’t the last time Larson’s work would inspire Miranda. After graduating from Connecticut's Wesleyan University, Miranda saw Larson’s tick, tick… BOOM!—the story of an aspiring musical theater composer struggling to make it—which, Miranda wrote, “spoke to me and strengthened my resolve.”

He was workshopping what would become his first Broadway show, In the Heights, when he wrote that essay; though he ultimately didn’t get the grant, Miranda tweeted that “it turned out okay anyway. Don’t give up. Don’t you dare.”

Miranda is currently in pre-production on a movie adaptation of tick, tick… BOOM! The film will mark his feature directorial debut.

5. The first musical Lin-Manuel Miranda ever wrote was about … a dissected fetal pig.

Writer/actor Lin-Manuel Miranda attends the curtain call for the opening night of 'In The Heights' at the Richard Rodgers Theatre March 9, 2008 in New York City
Steven Henry, Getty Images

According to Miranda, the show “involved a dissected fetal pig rising up for revenge.” It was directed by Chris Hayes—yes, MSNBC host Chris Hayes, who was then a senior in high school—and ran about 20 minutes. “I can still hum the tunes of that show,” Hayes said in 2017.

6. Before he was a Broadway star, Lin-Manuel Miranda was a substitute teacher.

After college, Miranda “taught 7th grade English for a year,” he tweeted in 2016. “[T]hen I was a professional substitute teacher UNTIL I got Heights on Broadway.” He was subbing at his old high school, Hunter College High School, for a while, he told Playbill, when he was asked to “stay on to continue to teach part-time.” At that point, one of the future producers of In the Heights had also reached out to Miranda because he was interested in his writing.

Unsure of what to do, Miranda asked his father: “Should I keep teaching or should I just kind of sub and do gigs to pay the rent and really throw myself into writing full time?”

Luis wrote his son “a very thoughtful letter, in which [he] said, 'I really want to tell you to keep the job—that's the smart 'parent thing' to do—but when I was 17, I was a manager at the Sears in Puerto Rico, and I basically threw it all away to go to New York, [and] I didn't speak a lot of English. It made no sense, but it was what I needed to do ... It makes no sense to leave your job to be a writer, but I have to tell you to do it. You have to pursue that if you want.’ That was very opposite advice from, ‘Be a lawyer,’ and I'm glad I took it.”

7. Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote music for local politicians.

Luis is a political consultant, and while his son was working on getting In the Heights to Broadway, he used his connections to get Lin-Manuel gigs writing music for ads for many of New York's leading politicians, including former governor Eliot Spitzer. “He’d say, ‘I have a Sharpton radio ad—I need 60 seconds of smooth jazz,'" Miranda told The New York Times in 2012.

According to Miranda, the music he composed was “generally accompanied by footage of the candidates shaking hands, doing very task-oriented things,” so the music needed to be “generally hopeful.” Music accompanying an attack ad, on the other hand, would have “sad strings” before transitioning to something more upbeat. “It’s a little like movie scoring,” Miranda told the Times. “If you’ve got a scary scene, you’ve got to write music for the scary scene.”

8. The version of In the Heights that Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote in college is drastically different from what ended up on Broadway.

Writer/actor Lin-Manuel Miranda attends the after party for the opening night of 'In The Heights' at the Richard Rodgers Theatre March 9, 2008 in New York City
Steven Henry, Getty Images

Miranda began writing In the Heights as a sophomore at Wesleyan. The college version, he told The Guardian, “was really just a love story set in” New York City's Washington Heights neighborhood. But when he came back home after college and saw the changes happening in the neighborhood, that began to change, and the show became, “In a sense ... a time capsule of a Washington Heights that's not going to exist in 10, 15 years,” he said. “All I know is I wanted to write a little show that captures what it was like, as I remember it. And so that will exist. My little memory of the neighborhood, through the show.”

In the Heights—which Miranda also starred in for a time—ran on Broadway from 2008 to 2011; it was while Miranda was on vacation between the show’s off-Broadway and Broadway runs that he read the biography by Ron Chernow that would lead him to Hamilton.

9. Lin-Manuel Miranda was really nervous when Hamilton author Ron Chernow came to see In the Heights.

Christopher Jackson, who played Benny in In the Heights and George Washington in Hamilton, recalled to Rolling Stone how Miranda told him about the idea for his next musical just a few days after he got back from vacation: “When Ron Chernow came to see Heights, I had never seen Lin that nervous,” Jackson told Rolling Stone. “He said, ‘Ron Chernow’s here!’ I said, ‘What does that mean?’ And he said, ‘The show needs to go well today.'”

10. Lin-Manuel Miranda's favorite Hamilton verse is in “WE Know.”

The moment occurs when Hamilton is accused of embezzlement. “I decided that when Hamilton is backed into a corner, he gets super internal rhymey,” Miranda told Katie Couric. As he’s telling Jefferson, Madison, and Burr about the Reynolds Affair, Hamilton raps:

She courted me
Escorted me to bed and when she had me in a corner
That’s when Reynolds extorted me
For a sordid fee
I paid him quarterly
I may have mortally wounded my prospects
But my papers are orderly
As you can see I kept a record of every check in my checkered history
Check it again against your list n’ see consistency
I never spent a cent that wasn’t mine
You sent the dogs after my scent, that’s fine.

“Those are enormous fun to put together,” Miranda said. “When Hamilton’s mad, it’s, like, Super Eminem, I’m going to destroy you with my mind.”

11. Lin-Manuel Miranda identifies with The Little Mermaid’s Sebastian.

“As a child, the [character in The Little Mermaid] I related to the most was Sebastian the crab, and I think as an adult he’s still the one I relate to the most,” Miranda said in WIRED’s autocomplete interview. “He just wanted someone to sing in his concert, poor guy. He’s a frustrated musician! I relate.”

12. Lin-Manuel Miranda compares himself to other people, just like the rest of us.

Miranda has packed a lot into his 40 years. To name just a few of his accomplishments: He has created Hamilton and In the Heights, co-written the music and lyrics for Bring It On: The Musical, penned a mini-musical called 21 Chump Street for This American Life, and translated the lyrics of West Side Story into Spanish for a 2009 Broadway revival. He has also appeared in The Sopranos, Modern Family, the revival of The Electric Company, and Sesame Street, among other shows.

While starring in Hamilton, Miranda wrote songs for Disney’s Moana (with Opetaia Tavita Foa‘i and Mark Mancina) and composed music for a scene in J.J. Abrams’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He co-wrote Hamilton: The Revolution, wrote a book with illustrator Jonny Sun, and somehow finds time to do monthly "Hamildrops" of remixes and new music inspired by the show.

But despite all Miranda has done, that doesn’t stop him from comparing himself to other people, just like the rest of us.

“I’ve seen people my age and younger shoot to success, and I measure myself against people by age,” Miranda told Rolling Stone in 2016. “Paul McCartney had already ended the Beatles and was midway through Wings when he was my age! Like, the entire Beatles, and he was not 30 yet. There’s always someone to measure yourself against when you’re like, ‘F***, what am I doing with my life?’”

13. Lin-Manuel Miranda keeps a high school math trophy next to one of his Grammys.

Composer, actor Lin-Manuel Miranda celebrates GRAMMY award on stage during 'Hamilton' GRAMMY performance for The 58th GRAMMY Awards at Richard Rodgers Theater on February 15, 2016 in New York City
Theo Wargo, Getty Images

In his career, Miranda has been nominated for an Oscar, won a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Genius Grant, and taken home three Tony Awards, two Laurence Olivier Awards, four Drama Desk awards, three Grammys, and an Emmy (among other awards). But, as he told Variety in 2016, he’s “just as proud” of a trophy he won for math in the 11th grade, “Because I got straight C’s in math all through high school.” The award, he said, “is on my shelf next to my Grammy.”

14. Lin-Manuel Miranda works hard to stay grounded.

Despite all that he has accomplished, Miranda doesn’t intend to get a big head. “I think the trap is in getting caught up in the importance of those titles and letting that make you think you’re important. I try very hard to fight against that,” he told Variety. “I have friends who are very happy to remind me that I’m myself,” adding that most of his friends “roast” him whenever they see him: “That’s why they’re my friends.”

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