Judi Dench

Dame Judi Dench had a somewhat less-than-auspicious beginning in theatre. At her Quaker junior school in York, the celebrated actress appeared in Four And Twenty Tailors Went To Kill A Snail, in the title role as the snail. Oh, if the tailors could see her now.

Judith Olivia Dench was born on December 9, 1934, in North Yorkshire, England. After attending Mount School in York she went on to study at the Central School Of Speech And Drama. She was discovered, aged 22, at the famed Old Vic theatre playing a tortured Ophelia in Hamlet. She later undertook a string of legendary roles including Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde's The Importance Of Being Earnest and Lady Macbeth in the Shakespeare classic.

In the course of her career she has appeared in over 80 plays worldwide and enjoyed success in genres ranging from the TV sitcom notably in A Fine Romance to Hollywood blockbusters, including the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough.

She often shared the screen with her late husband Michael Williams, whom she met in the Sixties when they were both promising young talents in the Royal Shakespeare Company. It wasn't, however, until nearly a decade later that romance blossomed between the pair.

When Judi left for a six-week tour of Australia, Michael followed and finally proposed. "Ask me on a rainy night in Battersea, and I'll think about it," she replied. And that's exactly what he did. The two were married in 1971 and enjoyed a unique partnership until he succumbed to cancer in January 2001. Their love was something out of the theatre; he sent her a single red rose every Friday, no matter where she was in the world and losing him proved particularly difficult.

Just months after Michael's death she put on a brave face for the 2001 Academy Awards where she was nominated for the movie Chocolat. And despite not taking home the gong said: "The best thing about the Academy Awards is being nominated. The terrible thing is that somebody's got to win."

"I got so fed up with being told, 'She's a saint' and 'lovely' that I was kind of ready to hate her because of this awful thing of being oversold," says actor Geoffrey Palmer of the woman who became a Dame of the British Empire in 1988. However, like everyone else, Judi's As Time Goes By co-star fell under her spell. "I think of Judi as a great friend; everybody who's ever worked with her thinks they're great friends, and they are. She's kind of a goddess," he says.

Despite all the accolades which include no fewer than five Baftas and 7 Oscar nominations - including Best Actress at the 86th Academy Awards for her role as Philomena Lee in Stephen Frears' Philomena, Judi keeps her success in perspective. "It all seemed dreamlike; it was just heaven," she said of her 1999, Tony-winning Broadway run in Amy's View. "One wonderful evening, I came out and there was the Fonz (Henry Winkler). Well, I didn't know where to put myself."

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