Breathes there a theatergoer or film fan on Earth who has not, at one time or another, fallen in love with the sublimely brilliant British comedic actress Dame Maggie Smith? The daughter of an Oxford University pathologist, Smith received her earliest acting training at the Oxford Playhouse School. In 1952, she made her professional stage bow as Viola in Twelfth Night. Four years later she was on Broadway, performing comedy routines in Leonard Sillman’s New Faces of 1956; that same year, she made her first, extremely brief screen appearance in Child in the House (she usually refers to 1959’s Nowhere to Go as her screen debut).
In 1959, Smith joined the Old Vic, and in 1962 won the first of several performing honors, the London Evening Standard Award, for her work in the West End production The Private Ear/The Public Eye. Her subsequent theatrical prizes include the 1963 and 1972 Variety Club awards for Mary Mary and Private Lives, respectively, and the 1990 Tony Award for her performance in the Broadway play Lettice and Lovage. In addition, Smith has won Oscars for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) and California Suite (1978), and British Film Academy awards for A Private Function (1985), A Room With a View (1986), and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1987).
These accolades notwithstanding, Smith has had no qualms about accepting such “lightweight” roles as lady sleuth Dora Charleston (a delicious Myrna Loy takeoff) in Murder By Death (1976), the aging Wendy in Steven Spielberg’s Peter Pan derivation Hook (1991), and the Mother Superior in Whoopi Goldberg’s Sister Act films of the early ’90s. During the same decade, she also took more serious roles in Richard III (1995), Washington Square (1997), and Tea With Mussolini (1999). On a lighter note, her role in director Robert Altman’s Gosford Park earned Smith her sixth Oscar nomination. Made a Dame Commander in 1989, Smith was elected to the Theatre Hall of Fame in 1994. Previously married to the late actor Sir Robert Stephens, she is the wife of screenwriter Beverly Cross and the mother of actors Toby Stephens and Chris Larkin.