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"Downton Abbey" fame spotlights Maggie Smith

The following is a script from "Dame Maggie" which aired on Feb. 17, 2013. Steve Kroft is the correspondent. Deidre Naphin, producer.

Of all the great British actors of the past half century none are more respected or honored than Dame Maggie Smith. She is most familiar now as the Dowager Countess on "Downton Abbey," which concludes its third season later tonight on PBS. She has won two Oscars, three Emmys and a Tony Award, all wrapped around a long and illustrious career on the British stage.

At age 78, she is at the peak of her fame, much in demand and quite bankable. Last spring's "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" was a surprise hit and there is a new film out, "Quartet," directed by Dustin Hoffman. She doesn't have much time -- or much interest in giving interviews -- which she's compared to testifying in court. They are a rarity. We were fortunate enough to get one.

Steve Kroft: You seem to have no interest in celebrity and fame.

Maggie Smith: Absolutely none. I mean, why would I?

Steve Kroft: Do you accept the fact that you're a star?

Maggie Smith: If you say so. Yes. I do-- I don't feel any different to the way I felt before and I'm not quite sure what it means. I am familiar to people now, which is what I was not before. That is entirely due to the television set.

She's talking about "Downton Abbey," the highbrow British soap opera that follows the intrigues of an aristocratic family and their servants at the turn of the last century. It's drawn critical acclaim and record audiences in Britain and for PBS's "Masterpiece" series here in the U.S. due in large part to Maggie Smith's portrayal of Violet, the imperious, sharp-tongued Dowager Countess of Grantham.

[Clip from "Downton Abbey:" "Mama, may I present Matthew Crawley and Mrs. Crawley, my Mother, Lady Grantham."

"What should we call each other?"

"Well we could always start with Mrs. Crawley and Lady Grantham."]

Her role as a privileged matriarch coping with the intrusions of the modern world has become one of the most memorable in a storied career and has already won her two Emmy awards.

[Clip from "Downton Abbey:" "I'm so looking forward to seeing your mother again. When I'm with her I'm reminded of the virtues of the English."

"But isn't she American?"


Steve Kroft: Did you have any idea that "Downton Abbey" was going to be this successful?

Maggie Smith: No, I didn't, no. A whole very startled group of people, you know. I mean very pleased, but very amazed.

Steve Kroft: You're proud of it?

Maggie Smith: Yes-- well, yes, of course I am. I was just thinking-- pausing because I haven't actually seen it, so I don't sit down and watch it.

Steve Kroft: Never?

Maggie Smith: No, I haven't watched it.

Steve Kroft: You must be the only person in England who's not watching it.

Maggie Smith: Well, that's a record then, isn't it? Of some sort.

Steve Kroft: Don't you have a desire to see how the whole thing turned out? You do it in bits and pieces.

Maggie Smith: I will look at it when it's all over, maybe. Because it's frustrating. I always see things that I would like to do differently and think, "Oh, why in the name of God did I do that?"

Video courtesy of Carnival Films/Masterpiece on PBS
The Downton Abbey series is available for purchase on PBS

Steve Kroft: But if you don't watch the finished product, what do you get out of it?

Maggie Smith: It's the delight of acting.

It was a childhood obsession that turned into a 60-year career, despite early advice from her grandmother that she wasn't pretty enough to be an actress and should learn to type. She made her Broadway debut at 21 and was later recruited by Sir Laurence Oliver to join Britain's National Theatre. She was already one of Britain's preeminent actresses when she first came to the attention of most Americans with "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," a film about a spirited teacher who becomes embroiled in scandal at an all girls' school. It won her the Academy Award for best actress.

[Clip from "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: "If scandal is to your taste Miss McKie, I shall give you a feast."

"Miss Brodie!"

"I am a teacher! I am a teacher first, last, always. Do you imagine that for one instant I will let that be taken from me without a fight?"]

Steve Kroft: It's been 44 years since you won your first Oscar.

Maggie Smith: Jesus, is it?

Steve Kroft: Uh huh (affirm).1969.

Maggie Smith: Good God. Yeah

Steve Kroft: What do you think your greatest talent is?

Maggie Smith: I really don't know. If I knew I would maybe teach or something, but I'm glad I have it, but I don't-- I really don't know what it is. And I don't think any actors can actually put a finger on it.

Steve Kroft: You've worked with every-- I mean you've worked with Oliver Gielgud. Burton. Michael Caine. Albert Finney. Judi Dench. Alan Rickman. Michael Gambon. I mean there're so many. Do you have any favorites?

Maggie Smith: I'd be mad if I said.

Steve Kroft: Michael Caine said that you steal every movie that you're in.

Maggie Smith: Oh, that's not-- that's far from true. He's a pretty good scene stealer.

They worked together in 1978 in the film "California Suite."

[Clip from "California Suite:" "Where are you going?"

"I need another drink."]

She played Diana Barrie -- a strung-out Oscar nominated actress -- in Los Angeles for the Academy Awards. Michael Caine played her bisexual husband.

[Clip from "California Suite:" "I've never hidden behind closed doors...But I am discreet."

"Discreet -- you did everything but lick his artichoke...!"]

In the film, Maggie's character did not win the Oscar, but Maggie did for her performance best supporting actress.

Steve Kroft: That looked like it was fun.

Maggie Smith: I found the director a bit tricky. A bit spiky.

Steve Kroft: What does that mean, "spiky?" That's a British term. People have called you spiky.

Maggie Smith: --sort of-- yes, they do. He was jagged. He was very difficult but when I got upset somebody said, "Try not to be because it happens to a lot of other people and Walter Matthau left the set the other day in tears." So that cheered me up a bit. I realized I wasn't the only one being picked on.

Steve Kroft: Is it alright to libel this man? Is he-- is he above--

Maggie Smith: He's no longer with us. But I had nothing to do with his demise. Really I didn't.

She once said, "I don't tolerate fools and they don't tolerate me..."

[Clip from "Murder by Death:" "Oh that's tacky, really tacky."

Clip from "Becoming Jane:" "Leave it."]

She's made a career playing spiky characters. And given her stature as an actress and the pressure she puts on herself for perfection, she admits being terrified before every take. She can be an intimidating presence on the set.

Steve Kroft: So everybody says you're a real professional.

Maggie Smith: Oh, I hope so. It's about time now isn't it?

Steve Kroft: That-- you're a perfectionist. That you take it very seriously. That you have no time for low standards.

Maggie Smith: You're trying to say that I'm-- what everybody says, they always seem to think that I'm scary. And I understand that totally. Old people are scary. And I have to face it. I am old and I am scary. And I'm very sorry about it but I don't know what you do.

Steve Kroft: I was concerned enough to ask somebody who had worked with you if he had any advice and he said, 'Don't let her smell your fear.'"

Maggie Smith: Who said this?

Steve Kroft: I can't tell you.

Maggie Smith: I insist upon knowing who this dreadful person was.

Well, it wasn't Julian Fellowes, the writer and creator of "Downton Abbey." He agrees that Maggie can be difficult, but he says it is always about the work.

Julian Fellowes: It's never about having a pink dressing room. You know, that's not it at all. It's about whether or not the scene works. Is this the right prop? You're hurrying. That thing is wrong. For me, her bothering is worth attending to and listening to because she ends up with a better product.

Lady Grantham from "Downton Abbey" is not the first role that Fellowes created with Maggie Smith in mind.

[Clip from Gosford Park: "Ooh yummy...Yummy yummy yummy."]

She was also the inspiration for the Countess of Trentham in "Gosford Park" -- a performance that earned her one of her six Oscar nominations.

Julian Fellowes: She has a style as an actress which is very, very rewarding for a writer. She's very dry. She has this strength, this kind of emotional strength, that is also underlying every laugh she gets. So if you write her a funny line or you know a reasonably funny line, she'll make it very funny.

[Clip from "Downton Abbey:" "Don't worry. Your turn will come."

"Will it? Or am I just to be the maiden aunt?"

"Don't be defeatist dear, it's very middle class."]

Steve Kroft: How important is Maggie Smith to "Downton Abbey"?

Julian Fellowes: Maggie is probably-- the hardest one to replace, could we put it like that. She would be, I think, the greatest loss.

Don't worry, it's not in the script or on the story boards and Dame Maggie has signed on for Season Four of "Downton Abbey" which is now filming. At 78 and a breast cancer survivor, she displays no appetite for slowing down. "Quartet," her 53rd film which is now in theaters, is about a retirement home for opera singers. Guess who is the diva.

[Clip from "Quartet:" "This is not a retirement home. This is a madhouse."]

It was directed by Dustin Hoffman, another strong-willed actor, in his first effort behind the camera.

Maggie Smith: It was a great treat. It was such a relief to know that the person behind the camera knew exactly how you were feeling, and when you had problems doing something, knew exactly why. He'd been in that position himself and understood it inside out.

Steve Kroft: How did you get along?

Dustin Hoffman: Perfectly. I mean, she did what she should do. In the middle of a scene, she'd say, "I don't know what the bleep this scene is about." And you know, strong and hard and the whole crew goes like this. And I literally enjoy it when that happens.

He got Maggie Smith to say a word that she had never uttered in more than 50 movies. The F-bomb. And Dame Maggie delivered it with the authority of a Dame Commander of the British Empire, which she is...

[Clip from "Quartet:" "I'm going to say something very rude to you. F*** you. And you.]

Steve Kroft: The F-bomb scene, she said that she's never said it in a movie before.

Dustin Hoffman: Well, Maggie, you certainly said it in life. It's one of her favorite words in life, that's one of the main reasons I love her, she's a sailor.

Hoffman and Smith have become great friends and she relaxed noticeably when he joined our interview. Two septuagenarians still in the game.

Steve Kroft: How are you dealing with the whole aging thing?

Maggie Smith: I don't like it at all, but then I don't know who does. Noel Coward-- and I don't mean to name drop. But he said, "The awful thing about getting old is that you have breakfast every half hour." And that's sort of what it is. I can't understand why everything has to go so fast.

She has two sons from her first marriage to Robert Stevens, her co-star in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," and both of them are successful actors who visit regularly. She remarried to playwright Beverley Cross who was the love of her life.

Steve Kroft: Your second husband passed away.

Maggie Smith: Some time ago now.

Steve Kroft: Is it lonely?

Maggie Smith: I don't know. It seems a bit pointless.

Steve Kroft: What seems pointless?

Maggie Smith: Going on one's own and not having someone to share it with.

Steve Kroft: But you have no interest in finding someone else?

Maggie Smith: Absolutely not. I-- no way.

Steve Kroft: How many grandchildren?

Maggie Smith: Five.

Steve Kroft: Can you deal with that?

Maggie Smith: Yeah.

Steve Kroft: You like it?

Maggie Smith: They're wonderful. They're wonderful.

She lives very comfortably now, splitting time between her house in London and a place in the country. Her only annoyances being a tricky hip and the unwanted celebrity of being a TV star. The seven "Harry Potter" films she has appeared in provided her with what she calls her pension, and a legacy with a new generation as Professor McGonagall -- plus a decade of memories with her young co-stars.

[Clip from "Harry Potter:" "Potter, take Weasley with you. He looks far too happy over there."]

Maggie Smith: It was extraordinary to see them grow up like that. Ten years of their lives. Half their lives that is, in fact.

Steve Kroft: And you didn't change at all?

Maggie Smith; No, I just got meaner and meaner. And spikier and spikier. No. I didn't change at all.

Steve Kroft: What do you look forward to?

Maggie Smith: I guess just to go on.

Steve Kroft: Well, there's season four.

Maggie Smith: There is indeed season four, but I mean logically Violet must be about 100 and something now, so I don't know how long she's gonna last. I really don't.

Steve Kroft: Julian says he's never going to kill her off.

Maggie Smith: In-- and there'll be-- have to be bath chairs and various things that they can push me around in.

Steve Kroft: He said they'll send you to the seaside. They'll never kill you off.

Maggie Smith: I think he'll have to.

Steve Kroft: Have you ever thought about retiring?

Maggie Smith: I think that the date for that has gone by. I fear that I won't work in the theater again. I'm sad about that. But I won't retire. I think I'll keep going with Violet and whatever other old biddy comes along.

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