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 (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.

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.

10 LEGO Sets For Every Type of LEGO Builder 

Amazon
Amazon

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If you’re looking for a timeless gift to give this holiday season, look no further than a LEGO set. With kits that cater to a wide age range—from toddlers fine-tuning their motor skills to adults looking for a more engaged way to relax—there’s a LEGO set out there for everyone. We’ve rounded up some of our favorite sets on Amazon to help you find the LEGO box that will make your loved one smile this year. If you end up getting one for yourself too, don’t worry: we won’t tell.

1. Classic Large Creative Gift Box; $44

Amazon

You can never go wrong with a classic. This 790-piece box contains dozens of types of colored bricks so builders of any age can let their inner architect shine. With toy windows, doors, tires, and tire rims included in addition to traditional bricks, the building possibilities are truly endless. The bricks are compatible with all LEGO construction sets, so builders have the option of creating their own world or building a new addition onto an existing set.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Harry Potter Hogwarts Express; $64

Amazon

Experience the magic of Hogwarts with this buildable Hogwarts Express box. The Prisoner Of Azkaban-inspired kit not only features Hogwarts's signature mode of transportation, but also Platform 9 ¾, a railway bridge, and some of your favorite Harry Potter characters. Once the train is built, the sides and roof can be removed for play within the cars. There is a Dementor on board … but after a few spells cast by Harry and Lupin, the only ride he’ll take is a trip to the naughty list.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Star Wars Battle of Hoth; $160

Amazon

Star Wars fans can go into battle—and rewrite the course of history—by recreating a terrifying AT-AT Walker from the Battle of Hoth. Complete with 1267 pieces to make this a fun challenge for ages 10 and up, the Walker has elements like spring-loaded shooters, a cockpit, and foldout panels to reveal its deadly inner workings. But never fear: Even though the situation might look dire, Luke Skywalker and his thermal detonator are ready to save the day.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Super Mario Adventures Starter Course; $60

Amazon

Kids can play Super Mario in 3D with LEGO’s interactive set. After constructing one of the courses, young designers can turn on the electronic Mario figurine to get started. Mario’s built-in color sensors and LCD screens allow him to express more than 100 different reactions as he travels through the course. He’ll encounter obstacles, collect coins, and avoid Goomba and Bowser to the sound of the Mario soundtrack (played via an included speaker). This is a great gift for encouraging problem-solving and creativity in addition to gaming smarts.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Gingerbread House; $212

Amazon

Gingerbread houses are a great way to enjoy the holidays … but this expert-level kit takes cookie construction to a whole new level. The outside of the LEGO house rotates around to show the interior of a sweet gingerbread family’s home. Although the living room is the standout with its brick light fireplace, the house also has a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and outdoor furniture. A LEGO Christmas tree and presents can be laid out as the holidays draw closer, making this a seasonal treat you can enjoy with your family every year.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Elsa and Olaf’s Tea Party; $18

Amazon

LEGO isn’t just for big kids. Toddlers and preschoolers can start their LEGO journey early by constructing an adorable tea party with their favorite Frozen characters. As they set up Elsa and Olaf’s ice seats, house, and tea fixings, they’ll work on fine-motor, visual-spatial, and emotional skills. Building the set from scratch will enable them to put their own creative spin on a favorite movie, and will prepare them for building more complicated sets as they get older.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Collectible Art Set Building Kits; $120

Amazon

Why buy art when you can build it yourself? LEGO’s Beatles and Warhol Marilyn Monroe sets contain four options for LEGO art that can be built and displayed inside your home. Each kit comes with a downloadable soundtrack you can listen to while you build, turning your art experience into a relaxing one. Once you’re finished building your creation it can be exhibited within a LEGO brick frame, with the option to hang it or dismantle it to start on a new piece. If the 1960s aren’t your thing, check out these Sith and Iron Man options.

Buy it: Amazon

8. NASA Apollo Saturn V; $120

Amazon

The sky (or just the contents of your LEGO box) is the limit with LEGO’s Saturn V expert-level kit. Designed for ages 14 and up, this to-scale rocket includes three removable rocket stages, along with a command and service module, Lunar Lander, and more. Once the rocket is complete, two small astronaut figurines can plant a tiny American flag to mark a successful launch. The rocket comes with three stands so it can be displayed after completion, as well as a booklet for learning more about the Apollo moon missions.

Buy it: Amazon

9. The White House; $100

Amazon

Reconstruct the First Family’s home (and one of America’s most famous landmarks) by erecting this display model of the White House. The model, which can be split into three distinct sections, features the Executive Residence, the West Wing, and the East Wing of the complex. Plant lovers can keep an eye out for the colorful rose garden and Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, which flank the Executive Residence. If you’re unable to visit the White House anytime soon, this model is the next best thing.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Volkswagen Camper Van; $120

Amazon

Road trip lovers and camping fanatics alike will love this vintage-inspired camper. Based on the iconic 1962 VW vehicle, LEGO’s camper gets every detail right, from the trademark safari windshield on the outside to the foldable furniture inside. Small details, like a “Make LEGO Models, Not War” LEGO T-shirt and a detailed engine add an authentic touch to the piece. Whether you’re into old car mechanics or simply want to take a trip back in time, this LEGO car will take you on a journey you won’t soon forget.

Buy it: Amazon

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10 Surprising Facts About Richard Pryor

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Richard Pryor, who was born on December 1, 1940, is considered by many to be the greatest stand-up comedian of all time. Jerry Seinfeld referred to him as “the Picasso of our profession.” Chris Rock has called him comedy’s Rosa Parks. Yet the indelible mark Pryor made on the world of comedy only tells part of his story.

Like his career in the spotlight, Pryor’s world offstage was also highly compelling and full of shocking turns. He’s one of those people whose real life was so off-the-wall at times that it becomes tough to separate fact from fiction. Here are just a few stories about the brilliant and chaotic life of the great Richard Pryor.

1. Richard Pryor had a tragic childhood.

Richard Pryor had a tragic early life, experiencing things that no child should have to endure: Born to a prostitute named Gertrude on December 1, 1940 in Peoria, Illinois, Pryor’s father was a notoriously violent pimp named LeRoy Pryor. For much of his childhood, Pryor was raised in the actual brothel where his mother worked, which was owned by his own no-nonsense grandmother, Marie Carter. With his mother periodically dropping out of his life for long stretches, it was Marie who served as Pryor’s central guardian and caretaker.

In 2015, The New Yorker published an article to mark the 10th anniversary of Pryor’s passing, which offered further details on his turbulent early life, noting:

Pryor said that one of the reasons he adored movies as a boy was that you were never in doubt as to why the women in them were screaming. As for the sounds that Richard heard in the middle of the night in his room on the top floor of one of Marie’s businesses, he had no idea what was happening to those girls. A number of times, he saw his mother, Gertrude, one of the women in Marie’s employ, nearly beaten to death by his father. Gertrude left when Richard was five. He later registered no resentment over this. “At least Gertrude didn’t flush me down the toilet,” he said. (This was not a joke. As a child, Pryor opened a shoebox and found a dead baby inside.)

2. Richard Pryor walked away from a successful career.

Early in his career Pryor found success by modeling his comedy largely on the work on Bill Cosby, which led to many comparisons being drawn between the two—a fact that Cosby reportedly grew to dislike.

There are conflicting tales of just how Pryor made the 180-degree change in style that led to him becoming a comedic legend. One of the most well traveled tales, and one that Pryor himself confirmed on more than one occasion, states that Pryor was performing his clean-cut act in Las Vegas one night when he looked out into the audience and saw Dean Martin among the crowd. If you believe the story, seeing the legendarily cool Rat Packer’s face made Pryor question what exactly he was doing and caused him to abruptly leave the stage mid-performance. Around this time Pryor moved to the San Francisco Bay area, dropped out of the comedy limelight for several years, and later reemerged with the more pointed, in-your-face style that made him an icon.

3. Richard Pryor won an Emmy for writing.

Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin, and Richard Pryor in Tomlin's 1973 TV special, Lily.CBS Television, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Though Pryor was better known for his work in front of the camera than behind it, the only Emmy he ever won was for writing. In 1974, Pryor won the Emmy for Best Writing in Comedy for Lily, a comedy special starring Lily Tomlin (in which he also appeared). He earned a total of four nominations throughout his career, two of them as an actor and the other two as a writer.

4. Richard Pryor made Lorne Michaels quit Saturday Night Live.

Back in 1975, Saturday Night Live was brand new, so at the time the show’s creator, Lorne Michaels, wasn’t yet a powerful TV icon. Therefore, when Michaels stuck his neck out and demanded the right to have Pryor on as a guest host, he was really risking a lot. It took Michaels handing in a fake resignation to convince NBC executives to allow the famously foulmouthed comic to appear. Michaels himself had to implement a secret five-second delay for that night’s episode to be sure that any off-the-cuff, unscripted choice language didn’t make its way out over the airwaves. The delay was kept from Pryor who, upon later finding out, confirmed that he would have refused to do the show had he known about it

The episode, the seventh one of SNL’s premiere season, contained one of the most memorable and edgy sketches ever to appear on the show: (the NSFW) Word Association. Chevy Chase and Pryor’s personal writer, Paul Mooney, have each claimed to have written the sketch.

5. Richard Pryor lost the starring role in Blazing Saddles.

Pryor and Gene Wilder made four films together (Silver Streak; Stir Crazy; See No Evil, Hear No Evil; and Another You), but there could have been at least one more. Pryor was one of the credited writers on Mel Brooks’s classic Blazing Saddles and the plan for a time was that he would also co-star in the film, playing Sheriff Bart alongside Wilder as the Waco Kid. In the clip above, Wilder explained how Pryor’s infamous drug use caused him to end up in a remote city and subsequently lose the starring role to Cleavon Little.

6. It wasn’t a drug mishap that caused Richard Pryor to set himself on fire.

One of the most retold stories about Pryor centers around the incident on June 9, 1980 where he set himself on fire and took off running down a Los Angeles street fully engulfed in flames. Though he wasn’t expected to survive the episode, he eventually pulled through and spent the next six weeks recuperating in the hospital. At the time it was often reported that the cause of the accident was Pryor freebasing cocaine. Pryor later admitted that in a drug-fueled psychosis he had actually attempted to kill himself by dousing his body in 151-proof rum and setting himself ablaze. A friend of Pryor’s at the time has gone on record as saying that the idea for the act likely came about that evening after the two of them watched footage of Thích Quảng Đức, the Vietnamese monk who famously burned himself to death in 1963 as an act of protest.

7. Richard Pryor was married seven times.

Pryor was married seven times—to five different women. In the 2013 documentary Omit the Logic, a friend of Pryor’s—who served as the best man at one of his weddings—recounts how Pryor showed up at his hotel room door just a few hours after marrying Jennifer Lee, insisting that he already wanted a divorce. Pryor would get divorced from Lee the next year, only to remarry her 19 years later; the two were still together when Pryor passed away in 2005.

8. Richard Pryor had a soft spot for animals.

In 1986 Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a central nervous system disease that ultimately left him confined to a wheelchair. Pryor was such an avid supporter of animal rights, however, that he actively spoke out against animal testing of any kind—even when that testing meant getting closer to a cure for his own condition. The biography on RichardPryor.com provides more insight into this part of his private life:

He's been honored by PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, for saving baby elephants in Botswana targeted for circuses. In 2000, as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was preparing to open at Madison Square Garden, Pryor gave the Big Top's first African-American ringmaster, Jonathan Lee Iverson, something to think about when he wrote him a letter in which he stated: “While I am hardly one to complain about a young African American making an honest living, I urge you to ask yourself just how honorable it is to preside over the abuse and suffering of animals."

9. Richard Pryor won the first Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Beginning in 1998, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts began awarding its annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which "recognizes individuals who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th-century novelist and essayist Samuel Clemens, best known as Mark Twain." Pryor was chosen as their very first recipient. In the more than 20 years since, he has been joined by an illustrious group of comedy legends, including Carl Reiner, Bob Newhart, George Carlin, Steve Martin, Carol Burnett, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Dave Chappelle.

10. Despite his deteriorating health, Richard Pryor never stopped performing.

Even while MS continued to rob him of his mobility, Pryor’s comedic mind continued cranking. Throughout the early 1990s Pryor would often show up at Los Angeles’s famous standup club The Comedy Store to take to the stage in his wheelchair. In the above clip from The Joe Rogan Experience, a few comics discuss what it was like to watch the all-time great perform in his diminished state.

This story has been updated for 2020.