Maggie Smith

In 2002, Dame Maggie Smith was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as the snooty Countess of Trentham in 1930s-set murder mystery Gosford Park. It's a role, Maggie admits, that will come as no surprise to anyone who follows her work. "I'm always in costume and period things, wandering around in wigs," she says. "If they want one of those snobbish English nasty people or whatever, I get into that bracket. It's all right."

Margaret Natalie Smith was born in Essex, England, on December 28, 1934. Though her mother didn't want her to go into the craft young Maggie wasn't even allowed to go to the cinema she wanted to be an actress since she was a child. Aged 16 she enrolled at the Oxford Playhouse School of Theatre, and within five years had headed for New York to work on a Broadway musical revue. "I don't know why," she said of the experience in 2002. "I can't sing, I can't dance. I was kind of dopey."

By the age of 22 she was back in London, and notched up her first West End performance in the 1957 production Share My Lettuce. Maggie also made her screen debut in the Fifties, and went on to deliver notable performances in a number of movies, winning Oscars for her role as an eccentric teacher in The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie and California Suite.

Her Gosford Park nomination was her sixth from the Academy, giving her a chance to add to the many accolades including six BAFTAs, three Golden Globes and a Tony Award she has on her mantelpiece. In 1990, Maggie was honoured by the Queen with an appointment as Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, having been given a CBE in 1970.

Maggie once summed up her career in a single sentence: "One went to school, one wanted to act, one started to act, and one's still acting." And though she's starred on screen in everything from costume dramas (A Room With A View) to mainstream flicks (Sister Act), the Harry Potter star says her heart really lies with theatre, a medium she says is "much more the real world". "Whatever's happening in your life, you've got three hours where you're completely organised and absorbed and you know what you're doing," she says.

The acclaimed actress has been married twice. She was involved with playwright Beverley Cross, but broke off the relationship after she fell for stage actor Robert Stephens in the early Sixties. She went on to marry Robert in 1967, and had two sons, actors Toby Stephens and Chris Larkin, but the union ended after seven years. By 1975, she had returned to Beverley and married him, nearly 25 years after they first met. "I'm remarkably fortunate," she says. "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 was with her second husband until his death in 1998, aged 66.

Known as an intensely private person with a wicked sense of humour, Maggie is notoriously shy and rarely gives interviews. "It's just that as you talk, one thinks, 'God, it's really rather dull'," she explains. She's equally modest about her ranking among the upper echelon of respected actors on both stage and screen. "That's because of age," she says. "If you live long enough in England, they think you're amazing."
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