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.

7 Weird Super Bowl Halftime Acts

Al Bello, Getty Images
Al Bello, Getty Images

Shakira and Jennifer Lopez seem like natural choices to perform the halftime show at this year’s Super Bowl, but the event didn’t always feature musical acts from major pop stars. Michael Jackson kicked off the trend at Super Bowl XXVII in 1993, but prior to that, halftime shows weren’t a platform for the hottest celebrities of the time. They centered around themes instead, and may have featured appearances from Peanuts characters, Jazzercisers, or a magician dressed like Elvis. In honor of Super Bowl LIV on February 2, we’ve rounded up some of the weirdest acts in halftime show history.

1. Return of the Mickey Mouse Club

The era of Super Bowl halftimes before wardrobe malfunctions, illuminati conspiracy theories, and Left Shark was a more innocent time. For 1977’s event, the Walt Disney Company produced a show that doubled as a squeaky-clean promotion of its brand. Themed “Peace, Joy, and Love,” the Super Bowl XI halftime show opened with a 250-piece band rendition of “It’s a Small World (After All).” Disney also used the platform to showcase its recently revamped Mickey Mouse Club.

2. 88 Grand Pianos and 300 Jazzercisers

The theme of the halftime show at Super Bowl XXII in 1988 was “Something Grand.” Naturally, it featured 88 tuxedoed pianists playing 88 grand pianos. Rounding out the program were 400 swing band performers, 300 Jazzercisers, 44 Rockettes, two marching bands, and Chubby Checker telling everyone to “Twist Again."

3. Elvis Impersonator Performs the World’s Largest Card Trick

Many of the music industry's most successful pop stars—like Prince, Madonna, and, uh, Milli Vanilli—were at the height of their fame in 1989, but none of them appeared at Super Bowl XXIII. Instead, the NFL hired an Elvis Presley-impersonating magician to perform. The show, titled “BeBop Bamboozled,” was a tribute to the 1950s, and it featured Elvis Presto performing “the world’s largest card trick.” It also may have included the world's largest eye exam: The show boasted 3D effects, and viewers were urged to pick up special glasses before the game. If the visuals didn't pop like they were supposed to, people were told to see an eye doctor.

4. The Peanuts Salute New Orleans

Super Bowl XXIV featured one of the last halftime acts that was completely devoid of any musical megastars. The biggest celebrity at the 1990 halftime show was Snoopy. Part of the show’s theme was the “40th Anniversary of 'Peanuts,'” and to celebrate the milestone, performers dressed as Peanuts characters and danced on stage. The other half of the theme was “Salute to New Orleans”—not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the comic strip.

5. A Tribute to the Winter Olympics

Super Bowl XXVI preceded the 1992 Winter Olympics—a fact that was made very clear by the event’s halftime. The show was titled “Winter Magic” and it paid tribute to the winter games with ice skaters, snowmobiles, and a cameo from the 1980 U.S. hockey team. Other acts, like a group of parachute-pants-wearing children performing the “Frosty the Snowman Rap,” were more generally winter-themed than specific to the Olympics. About 22 million viewers changed the channel during halftime to watch In Living Color’s Super Bowl special, which may have convinced the NFL to hire Michael Jackson the following year.

6. Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye

“Peace, Joy, and Love” wasn’t the only Disney-helmed Super Bowl halftime. In 1995, Disney produced a halftime show called “Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye” to tease the new Disneyland ride of the same name. It centered around a skit in which actors playing Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood stole the Vince Lombardi Trophy from an exotic temple, and it included choreographed stunts, fiery special effects, and a snake. Patti LaBelle and Tony Bennett were also there.

7. The Blues Brothers, Minus John Belushi

The 1990s marked an odd period for halftime shows as they moved from schlocky themed variety shows to major music events. Super Bowl XXXI in 1997 perfectly encapsulates this transition period. James Brown and ZZ Top performed, but the headliners were the Blues Brothers. John Belushi had been dead for more than a decade by that point, so Jim Belushi took his place beside Dan Aykroyd. John Goodman was also there to promote the upcoming movie Blues Brother 2000. The flashy advertisement didn’t have the impact they had hoped for and the film was a massive flop when it premiered.

15 Fun Facts About Betty White

Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

Happy birthday, Betty White! In honor of the ever-sassy star of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls's 98th birthday, let's celebrate with a collection of fun facts about her life and legacy. 

1. Her name is Betty, not Elizabeth.

On January 17th, 1922, in Oak Park, Illinois, the future television icon was born Betty Marion White, the only child of homemaker Christine Tess (née Cachikis) and lighting company executive Horace Logan White. In her autobiography If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won't), White explained her parents named her "Betty" specifically because they didn't like many of the nicknames derived from "Elizabeth." Forget your Beths, your Lizas, your Ellies. She's Betty.

2. She's a Guinness World Record holder.

In the 2014 edition of the record-keeping tome, White was awarded the title of Longest TV Career for an Entertainer (Female) for her more than 70 years (and counting) in show business. The year before, Guinness gave out Longest TV Career for an Entertainer (Male) to long-time British TV host Bruce Forsyth. As both began their careers in 1939, they'd be neck-and-neck for the title, were they not separated by gender.

3. Her first television appearance is lost to history.

A photo of Betty White
Getty Images

Even White can't remember the name of the show she made her screen debut on in 1939. But in an interview with Guinness Book of World Records, she recounted the life-changing event, saying, "I danced on an experimental TV show, the first on the west coast, in downtown Los Angeles. I wore my high school graduation dress and our Beverly Hills High student body president, Harry Bennett, and I danced the 'Merry Widow Waltz.'" 

4. White's initial rise to stardom was derailed by World War II.

Before she took off on television, White was working in theater, on radio, and as a model. But with WWII, she shelved her ambitions and joined the American Women's Voluntary Services. Her days were devoted to delivering supplies via PX truck throughout the Hollywood Hills, but her nights were spent at rousing dances thrown to give grand send-offs to soldiers set to ship out. Of that era, she told Cleveland Magazine, "It was a strange time and out of balance with everything." 

5. Her first sitcom hit was in the early 1950s.

A photo of actress Betty White
Getty Images

Co-hosting the Al Jarvis show Hollywood on Television led to White producing her own vehicle, Life With Elizabeth. As a rare female producer, she developed the show alongside emerging writer-producer George Tibbles, who'd go on to work on such beloved shows as Dennis The Menace, Leave It To Beaver, and The Munsters. Though the show is not remembered much today, in 1951 it did earn White her first Emmy nomination of 21 (so far). Of these, she has won five times.

6. White loves a parade.

From 1962 to 1971, White hosted NBC's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade alongside Bonanza's Lorne Greene. But that's not all. For 20 years (1956-1976), she was also a color commentator for NBC’s annual Tournament of Roses Parade. However, as her fame grew on CBS's The Mary Tyler Moore Show, NBC decided they should pull White (and all the rival promotion that came with her) from their parade. It was a decision that was heartbreaking for White, who told People, "On New Year's Day I just sat home feeling wretched, watching someone else do my parade."

7. She has been married three times.


Getty Images

White and her first husband, Dick Barker, were married and divorced in the same year, 1945. After four months on Barker's rural Ohio chicken farm, White fled back to Los Angeles and her career as an entertainer. Soon after, she met agent Lane Allen, who became her husband in 1947, and her ex-husband in 1949 after he pushed her to quit show biz. She wouldn’t marry again until 1963, after she fell for widower/father of three/game show host Allen Ludden.

8. Her meet-cute with husband number three happened on Password.

Bubbly Betty was a regular on the game show circuit, but she met her match in 1961 when she was a celebrity guest on Password, hosted by Allen Ludden. Though White initially rebuffed Ludden's engagement ring (he wore it around his neck until she changed her mind), the pair stayed together until his death in 1981. Today, their stars on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame sit side-by-side.

9. White originally auditioned for the role of Blanche on The Golden Girls.

A photo of actress Betty White
Getty Images

Producers of the series thought of White for the role of the ensemble's promiscuous party girl because she'd long played the lusty Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Meanwhile, they eyed Rue McClanahan for the part of naive country bumpkin Rose Nylund because of her work as the sweet but dopey Vivian Harmon on Maude. Director Jay Sandrich was worried about typecasting, so he asked the two to switch roles in the audition. And just like that, The Golden Girls history was made.

10. If she hadn't been an actor, she'd have been a zookeeper.

"Hands down," she confessed in a 2014 interview. This should come as little surprise to those aware of White's reputation as an avid animal lover and activist. Not only does she try to visit the local zoo of wherever she may travel, but also she's a supporter of the Farm Animal Reform Movement and Friends of Animals group, as well as a Los Angeles Zoo board member, who has donated "tens of thousands of dollars" over the past 40 years. In 2010, White founded a T-shirt line whose profits go to the Morris Animal Foundation.

11. She passed on a role in As Good as It Gets because of an animal cruelty scene.

A photo of actress Betty White
Getty Images

White was offered the part of Beverly Connelly, onscreen mother to Helen Hunt, in the Oscar-winning movie As Good as It Gets. But the devoted animal lover was horrified by the scene where Jack Nicholson's curmudgeonly anti-hero pitches a small dog down the trash chute of his apartment building. On The Joy Behar Show White explained, "All I could think of was all the people out there watching that movie … and if there's a dog in the building that's barking or they don't like—boom! They do it." She complained to director James L. Brooks in hopes of having the scene cut. Instead, he kept it and cast Shirley Knight in the role.

12. A Facebook campaign made White the oldest person to ever host Saturday Night Live.

In 2010, a Facebook group called Betty White To Host SNL … Please? gathered so many fans (nearly a million) and so much media attention that SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels was happy to make it happen. At 88 years old, White set a new record. Her episode, for which many of the show's female alums returned, also won rave reviews, and gave the show's highest ratings in 18 months. White won her fifth Emmy for this performance.

13. She is the oldest person to earn an Emmy nomination.


Getty Images

In 2014, White earned an Emmy nod for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program for the senior citizen-centric prank show Betty White's Off Their Rockers. She was 92. She also holds the record for the longest span between Emmy nominations, between her first (1951) and last (so far).  

14. She loves junk food.

The key to aging gracefully has nothing to do with health food as far as White is concerned. In 2011, her Hot in Cleveland co-star Jane Leeves dished on White's snacking habits, "She eats Red Vines, hot dogs, French fries, and Diet Coke. If that's key, maybe she's preserved because of all the preservatives." Fellow co-star Wendie Malick concurred, "She eats red licorice, like, ridiculously a lot. She seems to exist on hot dogs and French fries." 

15. She wants Robert Redford.

A photo of actor Robert Redford
Getty Images

White once gave this cheeky confession: “My answer to anything under the sun, like ‘What have you not done in the business that you’ve always wanted to do?’ is ‘Robert Redford.'” Though she has more than 110 film and television credits on her filmography, White has never worked with the Out of Africa star, who is 14 years her junior.

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