Maggie Smith Battled Cancer for Two Years, Barely Able to Stand on Her Feet During Filming, but She Managed to Restart Her Career

Maggie Smith is best known for her roles as the unstoppable Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter franchise and the witty Violet Crawley in Downton Abbey. But in real life, the actress’s personality is in no way inferior to that of her characters. Watching Maggie’s mesmerizing performance on screen, it’s hard to imagine that, twice in her career, she has had to overcome tough challenges and fight for her own health.

In her 70-year-long career, she’s won major industry awards and gained public acclaim.

© Othello / BHE Films and co-producers, Studiocanal Films Ltd / Mary Evans Picture Library / East News

Margaret Natalie Smith was born on the 28th of December, 1934, in the suburbs of London. When she was four, her family moved to Oxford, where the future actress attended secondary school and later took acting lessons. Maggie was 17 when she got her first role as Viola in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. After this, she spent a long time performing in theater plays; in 1956, she made her Broadway debut, and soon after that, she appeared on the big, screen where she became famous for her portrayal of strong female characters.

During her extensive film and theater career, Maggie has appeared in over 60 films and 70 plays. Her talent has been recognized with the Triple Crown of Acting, the term used to describe those who have won the highest accolades in film, television, and theater. Smith now has two Academy Awards, one Tony Award, and four Emmys under her belt. Maggie was also made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II in 1990 for her contribution to the Arts, and in 2014, she became a Companion of Honour for her services to Drama.

She faced a thyroid condition at the height of her career.

At 54, Maggie was still appearing in films and theater as actively as she had been at the beginning of her career. However, in January 1988, she was struck by Graves’ disease. This autoimmune disease affects the thyroid gland, causing the organ to enlarge and raising the levels of hormones it produces. Unfortunately, Maggie was destined to not only suffer from the disease but to also deal with its unpleasant consequences. She started having problems with her vision and developed Graves’ ophthalmopathy, which caused her eyes to look severely swollen and bulged.

She courageously overcame her illness and gained new fans.

Faced with problems with her eyes, Maggie spent about a year in almost total isolation while she went through surgery and radiation therapy. This eventually allowed her to stop the disease from progressing and return to work. Moreover, a new success was waiting for her around the corner. In 2001, Smith landed the role of Professor McGonagall in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Embodying this character brought her enormous love from the fans of the story and an army of new admirers.

Years later, she endured a new challenge.

It would seem that her struggle with ailments was behind her, but in 2007, the actress was unexpectedly diagnosed with breast cancer. Reflecting back on the two years she spent fighting cancer, Maggie notes that they simply fell out of her life. She spent most of that time fiercely battling the disease while also continuing to work, starring in the Harry Potter films.

Despite the constant pain and loss of hair, it was important for Smith to remain dedicated to the acting craft. In her own words, she “had no problem getting the wig on,” and, in some scenes, she resorted to holding on to the banister as she was too weak to stand up without support. Nevertheless, the actress heroically survived the ordeal and, in 2009, was delighted to announce that she had triumphed over the disease.

She returned to her much-loved work with great enthusiasm.

The year after beating cancer, Maggie had a new twist of fortune — she got the role of Violet Crawley on Downton Abbey. Having portrayed her, Smith became the living embodiment of British wit, and the fans were pulling quotes from her dialogues immediately after the release of each episode of the show. But the joy of her new career boost was overshadowed by the actress’s emergency hospitalization in 2012. Fears of a possible heart condition were leaked to the press, but luckily, there was never an official confirmation of the diagnosis.

Maggie Smith is now actively continuing her career, which spans more than 70 years. In 2019, she starred in the Downton Abbey feature film, with its sequel, Downton Abbey: A New Era, released in 2022. Despite all her achievements in the film industry and an impressive collection of the most coveted acting awards, Maggie has no plans of slowing down and retiring. She intends to keep working as long as she can. The actress attributes her intentions to the fact that she’ll miss the atmosphere on set, though we think it’s because Maggie, like her iconic characters, never gives up and doesn’t let herself get discouraged even in the darkest of times.

Which of Maggie Smith’s roles did you find most memorable?

Cheery/Health/Maggie Smith Battled Cancer for Two Years, Barely Able to Stand on Her Feet During Filming, but She Managed to Restart Her Career
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