Dignity and gravitas are qualities that we rarely expect to find in our celebrities, but at age 78 and more popular than ever, Maggie Smith isn't our typical celebrity.

America has fallen in love with this silver-haired actress. Why do I watch Downton Abbey? Maggie Smith. When you get right down to it, it's Downton's indomitable matriarch who keeps me—and quite a few others—coming back for more. The younger women on the show may get the exciting storylines, designer gowns, and photo shoots, but it's their grandmother who inspires me and my friends to write Facebook updates declaring, "I want to be Maggie Smith."

Of course, there's a distinction between Maggie Smith the actress, and Lady Grantham the character, but in the public mind, the two have largely become inseparable—all the more so because Smith, herself a British dame, has made a habit of playing such "biddies," as she calls them.

On any screen, large or small, the sight of that angular face with its piercing eyes lets us know that we're in for a distinctive experience, and a highly enjoyable one. Viewers relish her biting wit and the occasional glimpses of the vulnerability underneath, not to mention the awe-inspiring aura she seems to carry with her. "Old people are scary" is how Smith herself put it on 60 Minutes, with characteristic bluntness.

For Maggie Smith and her characters, that very scariness seems to add to the attraction. Though Professor Minerva McGonagall in Harry Potter puts forth a stern face and matter-of-fact demeanor, we see her as strong and caring. It helps explain, I think, why audiences on both sides of the pond have fallen so hard for Smith.

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