Ever since she played the sweet but sharp-tongued Charlene Frazier on Designing Women, Jean Smart’s fans have been waiting for the rest of the world to realize just how terrific she is. But despite starring turns in TV movies and a couple of short-lived sitcoms, Smart has mostly been known as a character actress and scene-stealing guest star. Her comic timing is impeccable—just try to make it through her “Put your brother on the phone!” bit from Frasier without laughing—but her recent turns in Watchmen, Mare of Easttown, and Hacks serve as powerful reminders that out-acting Jean Smart is a fool’s errand.
Now that we’re in the midst of what some are calling the “Jeanaissance,” it seems that Smart is finally getting her due. Her recent Emmy nominations for Hacks and Mare of Easttown are her 10th and 11th to date (she’s won three so far), but her nomination for Hacks marks the first time she’s been recognized in a lead-actress category. After 20 years of Emmy nods for guest and supporting roles, Smart’s overdue turn in the spotlight has arrived.
From her days as a classically trained Shakespearean actress to her recent stint as an incredibly lifelike mannequin, here are a few things that will make you appreciate Jean Smart even more.
1. Since she left college, acting is the only job Jean Smart has ever had.
In an interview for NPR’s Fresh Air, Smart revealed that she’s never had a “day job” besides acting. She managed to eke out a living for several years in Seattle’s professional theater scene before moving to New York City, where she made her Broadway debut when she was 29 years old. She has worked steadily in theater, television, and film ever since.
2. Before she was on television, Jean Smart was an accomplished Shakespearean actress.
After she graduated from the University of Washington Professional Actor Training Program with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1974, Smart spent a few summers performing with the renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Her stage credits with the festival include Much Ado About Nothing, Henry VI parts I and II, and a 1975 production of Romeo and Juliet in which she co-starred with a pre-Altered States William Hurt.
3. Jean Smart's career was launched by a groundbreaking LGBTQ stage production.
Smart earned plaudits for several stage performances throughout the late 1970s, but it was her role as Lil in Jane Chambers’s landmark lesbian drama Last Summer at Bluefish Cove that supercharged her career. Smart originated the role in the play’s 1980 off-Broadway debut, then reprised it the following year in a Los Angeles production. While a number of Broadway and off-Broadway plays have centered on characters who identify as gay men, lesbian representation in mainstream theater productions has been considerably scarcer; it was practically nonexistent before Bluefish Cove. “[W]omen would come six, eight, ten times,” Smart told The New Yorker in a recent interview. “They’d never had themselves represented like that, as normal, charming people.”
4. Designing Women wasn't Jean Smart's first sitcom.
Smart had bit parts in several TV shows and movies in the early 1980s, including The Facts of Life, Newhart, and Remington Steele, and she was a regular on the short-lived HBO prison drama Maximum Security. But before she was cast in her breakout role as Charlene Frazier in Designing Women, Smart had recurring roles in two sitcoms that failed to catch on: Reggie, which ran for one season in 1983, and the same year’s second-and-final season of Teachers Only. Smart played a secretary on both shows.
5. Jean Smart has played Marlene Dietrich, Lady Macbeth, Aileen Wuornos, and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.
For anyone who had the strange and wonderful experience of watching Mare of Easttown and Hacks in their initial, overlapping runs on HBO and HBO Max, Smart’s versatility as a performer is no surprise. Throughout her near-50-year career on the stage and screen, Smart has been cast in a remarkably diverse range of roles. She played Lady Macbeth in a 1980 production at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, and made her Broadway debut the next year as glamorous early-cinema icon Marlene Dietrich in Piaf. Those audiences might barely have recognized her 11 years later, when she played convicted serial killer Aileen Wuornos in the made-for-TV movie Overkill: The Aileen Wuornos Story, or in 2011, when she played the London-born Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, in the TV movie William & Catherine: A Royal Romance.
6. Jean Smart spent five days in the hospital after an injury on the set of Mare of Easttown ...
… and she still didn’t miss a single day of production. In a scene where Smart’s character, Helen, sat on the railing of a staircase to see Mare (Kate Winslet) off on her date with Richard (Guy Pearce), Smart decided to ham it up. During a May appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers, Smart told the host she thought it would be funny to pretend to fall off the rail and give her colleagues a scare. She leaned back a little too far, lost her balance, and crashed to the floor below. Smart ended up with an ambulance ride, a broken rib, a concussion, and a five-day hospital stay followed by three days in quarantine, but since the accident happened right before a break, she was able to report for work on her next scheduled day of shooting.
7. In a memorable scene from Hacks, Jean Smart plays a wax dummy of herself.
The sixth episode of Hacks finds Hannah Einbinder’s character, Ava, photographing a wax sculpture of Deborah Vance, the legendary comedienne played by Smart. If the dummy looks remarkably lifelike, there’s a good reason: the mannequin is, of course, just a stock-still Jean Smart. According to an interview with Decider, the hardest part for Smart was holding her eyes open while Einbinder stretched out the scene with a few improved comic beats.
8. Jean Smart has a family connection to the Salem Witch Trials.
According to researchers on the Lisa Kudrow-produced genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are?, Smart’s eighth great-grandmother is Dorcas Hoar, who was arrested and accused of witchcraft in 1692. Hoar had already incurred the wrath of her Puritan neighbors when she was charged with leading a burglary ring in 1678. She got off with a light sentence then, and fortune was on her side again during the Salem witch trials; Hoar confessed the night before she was supposed to be hanged and was granted an extra month to prepare for her impending death. By the time the month was up, the hysteria had mostly abated, and Hoar was eventually freed.
9. Jean Smart grew up wanting to be a standup comic.
Smart says she changed her mind when she “realized very quickly how terrifying being a stand-up comic could be.”
10. Jean Smart met her husband on the set of Designing Women and married him in co-star Dixie Carter's rose garden.
Though Smart’s first, youthful marriage ended before her acting career got off the ground, it wasn’t until 1986, when she was co-starring on Designing Women, that she met the love of her life. Veteran TV actor Richard Gilliland joined the cast early in the first season as J. D. Shackleford, boyfriend of Annie Potts’s Mary Jo Shively. After sending Delta Burke to find out if Gilliland was married, Smart says she “lured him to her dressing room” to help her with a crossword puzzle. The two wed the following year in Dixie Carter and husband Hal Holbrook’s rose garden, and were married until Gilliland died suddenly in March 2021. The couple had two children: Connor, born in 1989, and Bonnie, whom they adopted 20 years later.
11. Disney once convinced Jean Smart to accept a role by bribing her young son with merchandise.
After leaving Designing Women in 1991, Smart returned to primetime comedy a few years later to star opposite Mary McDonnell in the AbFab-esque sitcom High Society. When that show was unceremoniously axed after 13 episodes, Smart went on to co-star with Nancy McKeon in Style & Substance, a show that aired on CBS but was produced by Disney’s Touchstone Television. Smart was reluctant to take the role, so Disney reportedly resorted to shameless bribery: the company sent Smart’s young son, Connor, a box containing thousands of dollars in Disney merchandise and the promise of more to come if he could convince his mom to do the show. The ploy worked, but Style & Substance lasted just one season.