“Downton Abbey,” which begins its final season Sunday, is a PBS series that inspires the kind of fan loyalty usually reserved for “Star Wars” or “Walking Dead.” To some viewers, Maggie Smith was a big discovery as the Dowager Countess Violet Crawley, though they might have known her as Professor Minerva McGonagall in the “Harry Potter” films. Others may think of Smith as the mother of hunk Toby Stephens of the TV series “Black Sails.”
But true Smith fans know that the actress has been shining for nearly 60 years. Smith, who has won two Oscars and is a current Golden Globe contender for the film “The Lady in the Van,” has worked with names ranging from Paul Lynde to Laurence Olivier, also including such talents as Whoopi Goldberg, Cher, Bette Davis, Michael Caine, Alan Bennett, Merchant-Ivory, George Cukor and Joseph Mankiewicz.
According to the Variety Archives, Smith made her American stage debut in “New Faces of 1956,” in a revue that mixed comedy sketches and song (which was directed by Lynde, the future comedy star of “Bewitched” and “Hollywood Squares”). The Variety review said she was “competent,” but the material gave her little to work with.
She soon got better material. In 1962, she won the Evening Standard award — the first of her record-breaking five wins — for her West End performances in two one-acts by Peter Shaffer, “The Private Ear” and “The Public Eye.”
In March 6, 1963, Variety reported that Jean Kerr’s comedy “Mary, Mary,” a Broadway hit, got mixed reviews when it opened at the Queen’s Theatre in London, “but only rhapsodic delight for the performance of the leading lady, Maggie Smith.” The Herald review was headlined “Maggie-nificent” and David Nathan gushed “She is a gem of an actress, an undeniable dish.” Herbert Kretzmer in the Express fretted “I hope she doesn’t become a West End legend too soon. She is far too young and delicious for that.”
For the next 40 years, she alternated between film and stage work. She stole the show from Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the 1963 movie “The VIPs” and two years later received her first Oscar nom, as Desdemona in Olivier’s “Othello.” Onstage, she starred in Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” for Ingmar Bergman at the National Theatre and in Noel Coward’s “Design for Living” at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. On March 17, 1971, Variety’s Bill Edwards raved, “She is one of the most appealing, organized and warm actresses one ever is likely to see.” It’s not apparent what he meant by “organized” but the sentiments are otherwise clear.
She won the best actress Oscar for the 1969 “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” and a second for the 1978 “California Suite,” in which she ironically played an actress who is unhappy because she didn’t win an Oscar. Smith took home the Academy Award as a supporting actress, but had also won a Golden Globe in the lead actress category, yet another reminder that the term “category fraud” is a new invention, but “category confusion” goes a long ways back.
In 1999, she returned again to the Queen’s Theatre in the West End in the title role of Bennett’s “The Lady in the Van,” directed by Nicholas Hytner; it took 16 years for the writer, director and star to reunite for the Sony Classics film version.
The actress just turned 81 (she was born Dec. 28, 1934) and among her prizes are two Emmy wins (out of four noms) for “Downton,” and one Globe trophy (out of two noms) for the series. She’s also won five BAFTA prizes. Smith has three-fourths of EGOT, missing only a Grammy. But she’s still working hard, and still pulling in honors, so there’s time.