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The Untold Truth Of Maggie Smith

There are certain actors whom you don't know a great deal about but are always glad to see on screen. Dame Margaret "Maggie" Natalie Smith is one such actress who is extremely guarded about her personal life. But her film, movie, and theater performances have captivated multiple generations of audiences. 

Modern crowds might best remember Maggie Smith as the strict but fair Professor Minerva McGonagall from the "Harry Potter" series. Or as Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham on "Downton Abbey." But these are only the latest in a very long list of characters that the formidable actress has brought to life over the years. Starting out her career on the stage in 1952 at the age of 17, Maggie Smith was quickly noticed by discerning audiences and critics. 

Film and television roles soon followed, as well as a string of awards and honors for her contributions to the world of acting. These days, Smith shows no signs of slowing down, and the vigor and spirit she always brought to her characters has not dimmed in the slightest. Here are some important but lesser-known facts about the actress you need to know.

David Copperfield came before Harry Potter

While the "Harry Potter" movies are generally seen as having nailed the casting of most of the characters from J.K. Rowling's iconic book series, Maggie Smith's turn as Minerva McGonagall is considered particularly fitting. With her witch's robes, spectacles, and perpetually strict expression, Smith's McGonagall looks to have stepped straight out of the pages of the books whenever she appears on screen opposite Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe).

For Radcliffe and Smith, their bond was established a year before a single frame of the first "Harry Potter" movie was ever shot. In 1999, the two actors starred together in a two-part BBC television drama adaptation of Charles Dickens's iconic 1850 novel "David Copperfield." Radcliffe played the younger version of the titular character, while Smith assumed the role of Betsey Trotwood.  

While the world of "David Copperfield" is far removed from "Harry Potter," the two had an important correlation for Radcliffe, thanks to Smith. "I met Maggie Smith when I was nine for the first time," Radcliffe explained on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert." "I did a thing [with her] before 'Potter,' called 'David Copperfield,' a BBC adaptation ... Maggie was the person that like recommended me for 'Potter,' so she's the reason I ended up doing that." 

A very long list of awards

When it comes to acting awards for actresses, the general understanding is that Meryl Streep has gotten, like, all of them. But Streep is not the only actress with a bewildering number of acting awards. Maggie Smith has been performing in films and on the stage since the 1950s, and there are hardly any noteworthy awards in her field that she has yet to receive. 

A complete list of awards won by Smith would be longer than this article itself. Some of the major highlights include two Oscars — for "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" and "California Suite" — five BAFTAs, four Emmys, and a Tony Award for "Lettice and Lovage."

Smith has enjoyed such a brilliant acting career that the industry has run out of awards to give her, and has taken to giving her lifetime achievement honors instead. The most significant of those, of course, is when the actress was made a "Dame" Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 1990. She was also named a Companion of Honor (CH) in 2014 (via Vogue).

Suffering from Graves' disease

While Maggie Smith is generally accepted to be one of the most talented actresses in the world, one part of her striking on-screen presence which is unconnected to acting are her arresting eyes. The actress' well-known protuberant gaze can make anyone on the receiving end feel automatically inferior and even guilty for no reason. That was part of what made Smith such an effective Professor McGonagall.

It turns out the actress' slightly bulging eyes are a result of her battles with an immune system disorder called Graves' disease. The disorder results in an overproduction of thyroid hormones that can have a variety of physical manifestations. According to an interview with The New York Times, Smith was diagnosed with the condition in 1988, when she was 54-years-old.

One of the symptoms Smith suffered from was the protrusion of the eyes, also known as Graves' ophthalmopathy, which left her eyes painfully sore. Per The New York Times, Smith went through "12 months of near isolation," which included radiotherapy and eye surgery "to stem the protrusion."

BFFs with Judi Dench

While Maggie Smith has long been Hollywood's go-to actress whenever you need someone who can shrivel up their co-stars with a single sharp gaze, one other actress who can also command any room she is in is Judi Dench. Not only is Dench a fellow Dame, but she and Smith have been close friends for several decades. 

The duo met and became firm friends after having run into each other more than half a century ago when they were both up-and-coming members of London's Old Vic Theatre. Despite being known as the soul of professionalism, both actresses have to guard against the urge to break in front of the camera when acting opposite each other. "We know the danger areas of what might make us shriek with uncontrollable laughter," Smith explained in an interview with EW, "Which sometimes can be anything."  

The idea of the two Dames being friends has tickled the fancy of the public so much that a documentary was released in 2018 titled "Tea With the Dames," where Smith and Dench got together with their fellow Dames and veteran actresses Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright. While very little actual tea features in the special, the name of the beverage refers to the golden nuggets of gossip that the Dames occasionally divulged during the course of their conversation.

Her most iconic roles are not her favorites

For the current generation of audiences, Maggie Smith will forever be best known as Professor McGonagall from "Harry Potter," or Violet Crawley on "Downton Abbey." Smith was perfectly cast in both roles, and the countless fans who delighted to see her play those parts over so many years might be saddened to hear the actress herself is not particularly fond of either of them.

Never one to mince her words, Smith made her feelings clear during an interview for the Evening Standard. "I am deeply grateful for the work in 'Potter' and indeed 'Downton,'" the veteran actress explained. "but it wasn't what you'd call satisfying. I didn't really feel I was acting in those things." While disappointing for fans, Smith's views are understandable. 

After all, she has played a great range of leading and supporting roles over a storied career filled with complex and fascinating characters that an actor can really sink their teeth into. Compared to those, McGonagall and Crawley can seem a bit one-note. Still, Smith mentions that the one thing she particularly enjoyed about doing the "Harry Potter" movies was how thrilled her grandchildren were by the fact that she was a part of that magical world. 

A partnership gone sour with Laurence Olivier

Today's audience might see Maggie Smith working with Daniel Radcliffe on the "Harry Potter" movies as the high point of her career. But the actress has worked with the biggest industry stalwarts of not just one but several generations. And she got off to a flying start with an early partnership with cinema legend Laurence Olivier. 

It would not be too much to call Olivier a combination of Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Johnny Depp for his time. He has a whopping 85 acting credits to his name that span from the 1930s all the way to the late '80s. He also had a keen eye for talent. According to "Maggie Smith: A Biography" written by Michael Coveney, Olivier was so entranced by Smith's performance in a play called "The Double Dealer" that he personally invited her to join his theater company in major roles.

Unfortunately, Smith's strong personality frequently clashed with Olivier's. As Coveney told the Mirror, "having got her into the company they became not enemies, but professional rivals." This led to one harrowing altercation in the middle of a play, when Olivier as Othello was supposed to slap Smith playing Desdemona. As Coveney writes, "One night Olivier really slapped Maggie and she passed out on stage and was carried to the wings." It was an incident that Smith has also personally confirmed

A feline love affair

As Professor McGonagall, the highlight of Maggie Smith's performance for younger audiences was watching her transform into a tabby cat when the occasion demanded it. As it turns out, this was not the only time Smith found herself embodying the role of a real cat in a movie. She had already done something similar and much weirder with "Romeo.Juliet" in 1990. 

As the name indicates, the movie is an adaptation of William Shakespeare's iconic play and bursting with talented British thespians. The plot and characters follow a semblance of a similar path as the play, but with cats. That is to say, the main cast is composed of cats from Venice, with the actors lending their voices to the animals. 

Smith herself voiced the cat version of Rosaline. While a bizarre project, "Romeo.Juliet" was very well received by critics and became a popular favorite in musical circles. When it comes to cat-based musicals, it seems Smith fared better than her close friend Judi Dench did with "Cats."    

The reaction game

Playing Professor McGonagall in the "Harry Potter" franchise was not a big favorite for Maggie Smith in terms of career highs. After all, the movies were really all about Harry and his friends, and the most that Smith was required to do was look strict and occasionally take points off Gryffindor. 

It turns out Smith was not the only actor on set who was chafing about the one-note nature of their role. A fellow sufferer was Alan Rickman, who played fan-favorite villain-turned-maybe-good-guy Severus Snape. Like Smith, Rickman was usually only required to stand in the back and react with a scowl at whatever Harry happened to be doing at the moment. 

The job got so monotonous that Smith and Rickman used to have a hard time trying to squeeze out different reactions for the same shot. "When everything had been done and the children were finished," the actress recalled during an interview for NPR, "[the director] would turn the camera around and we'd have to do various reaction shots of amazement or sadness and things. And we used to say we'd got to about number 200-and-something and we'd run out of knowing what to do when the camera came around on us."

Maggie Smith and Ian McKellen imitate each other

For the rest of the world, actors like Maggie Smith and Ian McKellen are luminaries of a hallowed circle. Serious thespians who only exist to produce one remarkable performance after another before retiring into a private world to presumably ponder the deeper mysteries of their profession alongside other actors who share their brilliance.

But the truth is such thespians are regular people just like everyone else who have known each other for decades due to knocking about in the same circles, and are not above pulling each other's legs. Case in point: Smith and McKellen. When the latter actor was hosting "Saturday Night Live," one of the bits that proved the most popular was when McKellen dressed up as Maggie Smith during a "Weekend Update" session alongside Jimmy Fallon.  

Smith's reaction to the bit was just about as McGonagall as you can expect. During and interview with the Evening Standard, the actress remarked that she was afraid of going to see McKellen's one-man show because, "I'll run the risk of him doing an impersonation of me." She further added, "He does them all the time. I rather acidly told him that I'd done one of him but people didn't know him well enough to recognize it." Unfortunately, Smith's hopes of avoiding McKellen's impression of herself were dashed when he busted another one out during an interview with Graham Norton.

A complicated marriage

The film industry is known for producing some of the most unusual stories of marriages and romance in history, and Maggie Smith's marital life was no exception. The actress fell in love with well-known playwright Beverley Cross when the two worked together on Cross's play "Strip the Willow." 

The feeling was mutual, but a happy consummation of the relationship was hindered by the fact that Cross was already married at the time. Smith vowed to wait for Cross, but as it turned out, she herself fell in love with and got married to celebrated actor Robert Stephens in 1967.  

The Stephens-Smith marriage was not a happy one, and the two got divorced through a mutual agreement. Finally, Smith and Cross were able to get married in 1975, and enjoyed more than two decades of wedded bliss until Cross' untimely demise. The actress still feels the loss of her second husband keenly, admitting to The Telegraph, "It seems a bit pointless, going on on one's own, and not having someone to share [a life] with."  

Passing on the acting gene

No matter how turbulent the years of Maggie Smith's marriage to Robert Stephens were, they did result in something positive with the birth of their children Chris Larkin (born Christopher Stephens) and Toby Stephens. Following in the footsteps of their famous parents, both brothers have also entered the entertainment industry. 

For Larkin, the decision to change his surname before entering the industry was borne out of a desire to make it on his own instead of getting work based on his parents' fame. Both Chris and Toby have managed to establish their own acting careers. Larkin has been working steadily in films and movies since 1995. 

Meanwhile, Toby Stephens has been working in a range of productions since 1992. He has appeared in movies, British television, in stage plays, and even a Bollywood film. With the eventual marriage of her sons, Smith is now a grandmother to five youngsters, who are most thrilled by the fact that Smith is a part of the "Harry Potter" universe.  

She's not a fan of having so many fans

Some celebrated actors thrive under the constant fame and adulation coming their way. Others try to avoid the spotlight when not engaged in the work. Maggie Smith falls squarely into the latter camp. Despite appearing in so many successful movies and shows, she rarely gives interviews or divulges details about her personal life.  

The few times Smith does open up to interviewees, she makes it clear that the "fame" part of acting is not to her taste. During an interview for The Telegraph (via Daily Mail), the celebrated actress revealed that fans besieged her on a trip to Paris, and the experience was definitely not to her liking. "That's never happened to me before," Smith explained about the experience. 

"It's very difficult when you're alone because you have no escape," she continued. "It was awful. I love wandering round on my own and I just couldn't." To avoid any future incidents in a similar vein, the actress now makes sure to always have someone with her when out in public. Perhaps Smith should have tried fixing her pushy fans with a stern gaze and threatening to dock 50 points from Gryffindor if they didn't leave her alone.   

Battling cancer alongside Voldemort

Graves' disease was not the only serious illness that Maggie Smith had to contend with in her life. In the late 2000s, the actress was diagnosed with breast cancer. Ever the work-house, Smith continued to work even while she was receiving chemotherapy to deal with the illness. 

In fact, she filmed McGonagall's scenes for "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" in the middle of her treatment. The wig she wore helped disguise the fact that her natural hair had fallen out due to the effects of the chemotherapy. "I was hairless," Smith stated in an interview for The Times (via The Leaky Cauldron). "I had no problem getting the wig on. I was like a boiled egg." According to the venerable actress, she had to hold on to the railings next to her in her scenes because she was too weak to stand unsupported. 

Despite her weakened health, Smith vowed to "stagger through the last 'Potter'" movie to properly close the chapter on Professor McGonagall. In doing so, she got to film her character's most triumphant scene when she takes on Severus Snape in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2" — something J.K. Rowling had to fight to be included in the movie. Thankfully Smith's treatment worked, and she was able to get back to her regular life.  

No plans to retire

These days, Maggie Smith is long past the age when most professionals begin contemplating retirement. But despite having already achieved everything an actor could possibly achieve in the field, Smith shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, the actress intends to keep working as long as the roles keep coming.  

In an interview for The Sunday Times (via ABC News), Smith explained that she would miss the atmosphere on set too much if she ever chose to retire from acting despite the demands of the profession taking a toll on her energy. "When you're not working it's scary," she explained. "and when you are working it's scary, because you don't know if you've got the energy to get through the day." 

She added that "the bleakness of not doing it, and missing out on the friendships that you make, is too much to bear." Fortunately, age has proved no obstacle to Smith lighting up the screen with her presence, and as of this writing, she still has projects lined up and on the go.