Dame Maggie Smith — things you didn’t know about the Downton Abbey star

Maggie Smith on the red carpet
Maggie Smith has become a household name after a hugely successful career on stage and screen. (Image credit: Getty)

Dame Maggie Smith is one of the most recognizable faces in entertainment and has enjoyed a glittering career on stage and screen, spanning seven decades. Her resume is nothing short of staggering. To date, she’s starred in over 60 films and 70 theatre plays, and is one of Britain’s most decorated artists, having won BAFTAs, Golden Globes, Primetime Emmy’s and two Oscars.

Although already a huge star in the UK, Maggie achieved international acclaim in 2001 for her role as Professor Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter film series. And she gained newfound fame in 2011 playing Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham in both the ITV series and film adaptation of period drama, Downton Abbey.

A second movie, Downton Abbey: A New Era, which is now in UK cinemas and is heading to the US on May 20, will see Dame Maggie reprising her role as the irrepressible Crawley matriarch, which is sure to delight fans.

But before that, here are a few facts you may not know about the veteran actress…

Dame Maggie Smith began her acting career in Oxford

Born in Ilford, Essex on December 28th 1934, Margaret Natalie Smith was the only daughter of Margaret Hutton and Nathaniel Smith, and the younger sister of twin brothers, Alistair and Ian. 

Maggie’s mum, a secretary from Glasgow, met her father, a public-health pathologist from Newcastle upon Tyne, while traveling on a train to London. When Maggie was four the family relocated to Oxford for her dad’s job, where she became a pupil at Oxford High School. Although her parents, particularly her mother, disapproved of her acting ambitions, Maggie was determined to pursue her career of choice. After leaving school in 1952 at 17, she joined the Oxford Playhouse to hone her craft, and took on her first leading lady role, playing Viola in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Parts in productions of Cinderella, Cakes and Ale and The Government’s Inspector followed, before Maggie went overseas to Broadway, making her professional acting debut there in 1956.

Maggie Smith is startled in a scene from the film 'Travels With My Aunt', 1972.

Maggie Smith in the movie Travels With My Aunt in 1972.  (Image credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images)

Maggie’s won the 'The Triple Crown of Acting'

Maggie is one of only a few illustrious actors to have achieved 'The Triple Crown of Acting' — the highest accolade for film, television and theatre. She is the recipient of a Tony award, four Primetime Emmy gongs, and two Oscars – for Best Actress (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1969) and Best Supporting Actress (California Suite, 1978). Among her other incredible achievements are seven BAFTA’s, a BAFTA fellowship awarded in 1996, three Golden Globes, five Screen Actors Guilds, and she’s won Best Actress at the Evening Standard Awards a record six times over her career, the first being in 1962. 

In 1990, Maggie was made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II for her contributions to the arts and received the Companion of Honour for her services to drama in 2014. We think that deserves a standing ovation! 

Her heart lies with the theatre

With her incredible acting ability and impeccable comedic timing, versatile Maggie can turn her hand to any genre. These days she’s best known for her performances on the small and big screens, but Maggie says her heart lies with the theatre as it’s her favourite medium. 

Although having appeared in numerous Shakespeare plays, including playing Desdemona alongside Laurence Olivier in Othello, she once famously remarked the works of the Elizabethan playwright are 'not her thing'. Theatre was Maggie’s first love, and after a 12-year absence, she returned to the stage in April 2019 in a one woman show, A German Life, based on the real-life testimony of Brunhilde Pomse, secretary to Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. Her solo performance won rave reviews, with critics describing it as ‘a triumph’. 

Maggie Smith as Professor Minerva McGonagall in Harry Potter

Maggie Smith as Professor Minerva McGonagall in Harry Potter. (Image credit: Warner Bros)

She won’t watch her performances

Despite having spent all her adult life acting, modest Maggie admits she can’t bring herself to watch herself on screen. During a conversation with journalist Mark Lawson for Radio Times in 2017, the self-deprecating star explained: “I think it’s because you really can’t do anything about it. In the theatre at least you can think I’ll have another go at it tomorrow night, but (on-screen) it’s forever. Of course, you’re forced to see yourself if you go to one of those premiere things, but you always think why on earth did I do it like that? And there’s no going back. It’s weird seeing yourself – even mirrors are tricky!”

Maggie’s not a fan of being famous

Maggie is now recognised wherever she goes, but being famous doesn’t always please the notoriously private actress. Although having achieved incredible success in her career, the star insists she was once able to lead a ‘normal life’ and largely went unnoticed when she used to visit theatres and galleries. 

However, since Downton mania swept the country, she finds she can’t go anywhere without being approached by fans, of all ages. Appearing on The Graham Norton Show in 2015, Maggie recalled an adorable incident with a young viewer in her local supermarket: “I was in Waitrose and a little boy was at the checkout with his mother and he kept looking at me. I thought what am I going to do about this? and I said, “Can I help you?” and he said, “It’s alright, it’ll come to me in a minute”. I thought that was so sweet, so lovely.” 

Maggie Smith as Violet in Downton Abbey

Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, in Downton Abbey. (Image credit: ITV)

She married her old flame

While working with Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre in the 1960s, Maggie started a relationship with actor Robert Stephens, who was also contracted to the company. The pair went on to marry in 1967, and had two sons together – actors Chris Larkins and Toby Stephens, who starred as Bond villain Gustav Graves in Die Another Day. The pair divorced in April 1965 and later that year, Maggie got hitched to playwright Beverley Cross at Guildford Registry Office. 

In a move-like twist, Maggie and Beverley had previously dated, and he had first asked her to marry him 20 years earlier. The couple remained devoted to one another until Beverley’s death in 1998, and Maggie is grateful they got a second chance at love. 

In an interview with The New York Times she said: “I’m remarkably fortunate. 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.”

She’s overcome her own health battles

Life struck Maggie a blow in 1988 when she was diagnosed with Graves’ disease. Although not life-threatening, the chronic illness is caused by an overactive thyroid. In order to treat the condition, which she had suffered from since childhood, Maggie underwent radiotherapy and optical surgery. Then in 2007, a national newspaper revealed that the much-loved actress had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and was undergoing chemotherapy during filming for the sixth Harry Potter film. Determined it was business as usual, Maggie continued working throughout her treatment and thankfully went on to make a full recovery.

Maggie Smith in a scene from the movie 'The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie' in 1969

Maggie Smith in a scene from the movie The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie in 1969.  (Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

She has no plans to retire

Maggie will be celebrating her 88th birthday this year, but has no plans to give up the day job just yet. However, she did give actor Dominic West a bit of a scare. While filming together for Downtown Abbey: A New Era, Maggie let slip to Dominic (who plays silent film star Guy Dexter) that this movie would be her last. 

Recalling their conversation at a press conference, the actor said: "She (Maggie) said she’s going to throw in the towel now. No more acting, and I’m not doing theatre either, this will be my last job". However, it turns out Maggie wasn’t exactly telling him the truth. "I went back in the following week," Dominic said, "And Maggie told me she’s booked another film, she starts next week." Phew! 

She does her bit for charity

Maggie has put her fame to good use, by helping raise the profiles of several charities. Proud of her roots, Maggie is a patron of the Oxford Playhouse. She’s also a vice-president of the Royal Theatrical Fund, which raises money to help members of the entertainment industry, who are unable to work due to illness. And in 2020, Maggie joined four of Britain’s most respected actors – Dame Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Kenneth Branagh for a Zoom chat. Their conversation, entitled ‘For One Knight Only’ was to raise money for the charity Acting for Others

Maggie Smith as Nora in the film 'Young Cassidy', a biopic of Irish dramatist Sean O'Casey, 1965

Maggie Smith as Nora in the film Young Cassidy, a biopic of Irish dramatist Sean O'Casey in 1965. (Image credit: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Dame Maggie Smith’s fact file

Frequently asked questions about the legendary star…

How old is Maggie Smith?

Maggie Smith is 87, she was born on 28th December 1934.

Is Maggie Smith married?

Maggie Smith has been married twice. Her first marriage was to actor Robert Stephens in June 1967 and ended in April 1975. She went on to marry playwright Beverley Cross in June 1975, and they remained together until his death in March 1998.

Does Maggie Smith have any children?

Maggie has two sons from her first marriage — Chris Larkin and Toby Stephens, both of whom have followed their parents’ footsteps by becoming actors. 

Does Maggie Smith have any grandchildren?

Maggie has five grandchildren, three granddaughters and two grandsons.

Where was Maggie Smith born?

Maggie was born in Ilford, Essex. 

How tall is Maggie Smith?

Maggie is 5 foot 4.

We work hard to ensure that all information is correct. Facts that change over time, such as age, will be correct, to the best of our knowledge, at the time of the last article update.

Laura Morgan
Freelance writer

Laura has been a journalist for over a decade, writing about soaps, TV entertainment, fashion, beauty, and food. After graduating from university, she started her career working at a national soap and TV magazine. During her seven-year stint there she joined the cast of Emmerdale for a tour around the famous village, partied with soap stars at awards bashes, interviewed her acting idol David Suchet, and sat in the front row of Strictly Come Dancing

Her heart lies with the soaps, and her all-time favourite character has to be EastEnders' Pat Butcher - no one rocked a big earring quite like her. She's also a huge fan of detective crime dramas, particularly old school Inspector Morse, Endeavour, and adaptations of Agatha Christie's Marple and Poirot. When she's not writing, she loves a spot of second-hand shopping and going on adventures with her young son.