Before she was the grand dame of period dramas, Maggie Smith—who turns 87 today—was the sprite-like British talent blazing a trail in Hollywood after carving out a stellar reputation on the West End stage.
The Essex-born actor kicked off her career playing Viola in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at the Oxford Playhouse, where she studied her craft. It was the beginning of a love affair with the Bard that has endured over the decades: she played Desdemona in Othello (and earned her first Oscar nomination for her performance in the 1965 film adaptation); starred as Queen Elizabeth, Lady Macbeth, and Cleopatra on stage in the late ’70s, and as recently as last year joined Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh, Ian McKellen, and Derek Jacobi over Zoom for a charity discussion entitled For One Knight Only.
But it hasn’t all been theater canon. Smith has appeared in comedy capers, Merchant Ivory classics, and commercial juggernauts like the Harry Potter movie franchise, not to mention some stone-cold ’90s classics, The First Wives Club and Sister Act among them. After some 70 years in the spotlight, there isn’t a genre she hasn’t conquered, an emotion she’s failed to capture, or an acting legend she hasn’t starred with.
In honor of her birthday, see 20 vintage photographs of the much-loved Maggie Smith from her days as a radiant rising star, below.