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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.