"With a face like that," stated Meg, Margaret Smith's mom, no less, "how could you hope to be an actress? Go to secretarial school." Nat, her dad, didn't agree. Not that it mattered. Meg was stagestruck and the flames of desire to make a career there never extinguished.

A drama teacher, sensing something special, accepted her into her school and, with her instructor as Svengali, Meg, no surprise, soon was playing leads—and, at Oxford, as Maggie Smith won over audiences in several revues. The seed was not only planted but grew like the bean in Jack and the Beanstalk.

What a career she developed as Maggie Smith climbed that stalk higher and higher. No one does glamour, severity, or tight-lipped witticism better than three-time Tony nominee and winner for Lettice and Lovage (one of only four Broadway outings), and six-time Oscar nominee with two wins, Dame Maggie Smith.

Michael Coveney's “Maggie Smith - A Biography” (St. Martin's Press: 331 pages; hardcover and Kindle; three B&W and color photo sections; index; SRP $28) shines a light on this indefatigable star who's become one of the greatest actors of our time.

Dame Maggie is also an 11-time Golden Globe nominee with two wins (one for her portrayal of “Downton Abbey's” formidable, quite opinionated Dowager Countess Violet Crawley); and an eight-time Emmy nominee with three wins (two, as above). There're also five U.K. Evening Standard Awards and their Icon honor, six Olivier nominations and a special honor; and BAFTA wins.

Writing with Dame Maggie's cooperation, Coveney, author of “The World According to Mike Leigh” and “Cats on a Chandelier: The Andrew Lloyd Webber Story,” and an astute and respected U.K. theater critic, draws from personal archives, as well as interviews with family, friends, and peers.

You expect Dame Maggie to speak her mind, and you won't be disappointed as the author examines in depth the effort she gave in over six decades of characters onstage and on film/TV. He's fortunate to have access to her recollections of early days in comedies and revues, her Broadway debut, and the paths she crossed with great actors, playwrights, and directors.

Maggie Smith was a fixture at the Royal National Theatre in the 60s, most notably portraying Desdemona in Othello opposite Laurence Olivier, with whom she frequently clashed due to his egomania. (When she refused to follow a stage direction, because he felt she was upstaging him, he had the audacity to slap her—something she never let him forget). To his credit, he didn't stand in the way of her being cast in the 1966 film version, for which they were both Oscar-nominated (and she was nominated for a Golden Globe).

Smith excelled also in film and TV. It was 1969's “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” adapted from Scot Muriel Spark's celebrated 1961 novel and Jay Presson Allen's 1968 stage adaptation, and her performance as the very proper 30's Edinburgh schoolmistress who referred to her girls as the crème de la crème, that launched Dame Maggie on the fast track.

Among her numerous acclaimed performances on the West End were Hedda Gabbler and in Congreve's The Way of the World, Albee's Three Tall Women and A Delicate Balance, Hare's The Breath of Life, and Alan Bennett's Lady in the Van, now expanded for the screen by Bennett with Olivier-winning Alex Jennings (Prince Charles in “The Queen”) starring opposite her as Bennett. Dame Maggie also excelled onstage in Anthony and Cleopatra and Macbeth.

Her film and television career has been just as starry. From the meddling chaperone in “A Room with a View” to the Harry Potter films (in which she plays Minerva McGonagall, who was, she writes, "'Miss Jean Brodie in a wizard's hat"), and her wise Muriel Donnelly in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” films.

Dame Maggie is one of Britain's most recognizable names. Thanks to her role in the Potter franchise and six seasons of “Downton Abbey” scene stealing (Olivier would be proud but might turn down the opportunity to appear opposite her again), she's won the hearts of millions more here.


Ellis Nassour
December 2015
A Biography of One of the Greatest Actors of Our Time