Maggie Smith's Downton Abbey Fame Came At A Hefty Cost

If you were to ask people who their favorite character from "Downton Abbey" is, my guess is well over 90% of the people would choose Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, as played by Dame Maggie Smith. As is the case with most television shows, people tend to gravitate toward the most fun characters, and without a shred of doubt, the Dowager Countess is the most fun. She gets to wield her power freely and deliver all the funniest, cleverest quips the show has to offer. Any scene she is in, her character becomes the focus of the scene, even if she just says a couple of sarcastic one-liners.

Smith won three of the five years she was nominated for her performance at the Emmys, and all anyone could say to her taking home yet another award was, "Well, obviously." Even as the show started losing its footing in the later years, you could always rely on Smith to bring the juice. After all, she has been a successful working actor since the 1950s. We have become so accustomed to her in her later years we sometimes forget she won two Academy Awards, five BAFTAs, and a Tony Award all before the turn of the 21st century (not to mention a litany of nominations).

By any metric, she has had a wonderful career as an actor, but she was not someone you would consider a household name. She was a well-respected character actor. The part of the Dowager Countess, on the page, is a character part, yet for her, it turned her into a complete star. This came as quite a surprise for Smith herself.

The familiarity of television

Prior to "Downton Abbey," Maggie Smith had not really done much television. She would take on a miniseries here or there or have a recording of a play air on the tube, but the small screen was not her domain. She thrived on film and on stage. Television, particularly of the soapy variety that is "Downton Abbey," allows the audience a different relationship with the performers. In an interview with "Fresh Air," Smith explained how fame has completely taken over her life:

"I find it very difficult to do anything on my own now because people recognize me. This has never happened to me before because I haven't really done television before. But I suppose if you're in people's rooms all the time — I don't know. I was thinking that the other night, with people like [Leonardo] DiCaprio and even — the big stars and Cate Blanchetts, and you just think, how do they exist? It's so difficult, and I think now it's very intrusive because of these cellphones, you know, with cameras."

When you have a weekly appointment with a program a couple months out of the year, you peer into the lives of these people on a consistent basis, almost making you think you know them. The actor and character form such a strong bond with each other that the two can't be separated. So if you see Smith on the street, you might think she's your houseguest or friend, which she obviously is not. Smith is currently 87 years old, and spending so many decades being able to just walk down the street unencumbered to now having to skirt the public must be a nuisance she quite frankly should not have to deal with. Don't bother famous people on the street. They're people too.

Why did Harry Potter not do the same thing?

Strangely, Maggie Smith credits "Downton Abbey" with her overwhelming fame. Thinking of her career, I would have instantly thought the "Harry Potter" film series would be the ones that would have stopped her ability to live her life in peace and quiet. "Downton Abbey" is a big deal, but it does not hold a candle to the popularity of the wizard franchise. Those movies will never stop printing money, no matter how disinterested people are in the "Fantastic Beasts" spinoffs. The core eight Hogwarts pictures continue to be beloved by millions upon millions.

So how did they not create life-altering fame for Smith? I think it has to do with the audience. The key demographic for the "Harry Potter" films is children, and the people they obsessed over in the films were its trio of young stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint. All the British acting royalty in the films that played professors, parents, shopkeepers, or whomever else could let the kids take the spotlight and recede into the background. Smith's Professor McGonagall is a major character across the series, but kids saw her as McGonagall, not Maggie Smith. If she wasn't adorned in witch robes, would they even recognize her?

When she signed onto the "Harry Potter" series, I bet she thought that would be the thing to turn her life upside down. In reality, it was an ITV and PBS show that did it.