Smart, Jean Elizabeth (b. 1951)

  • By Rita Cipalla
  • Posted 3/04/2024
  • Essay 22906
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Actress Jean Elizabeth Smart was born in Seattle on September 13, 1951, the second of four children. After graduating from Ballard High School in 1969, she entered the University of Washington’s Professional Actor Training Program, graduating in 1974. Her professional career got its start the following year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where she played eight roles in three years. After a brief marriage, she moved to New York City, getting her big break when she was cast as a dying lesbian in Last Summer at Bluefish Cove. She moved to California in 1983 to star in a new television series and since then has steadily worked in TV and film. One of her most memorable roles was as the office manager in the popular sitcom Designing Women, a part she played for five years. During her first year on the series, Smart met her second husband Richard Gilliland, another actor on the set. The two were married for nearly 34 years until Gilliland’s death in 2021. Smart has won five Emmys and received 12 nominations. Since 2021, she has starred as an aging stand-up comic in the TV series Hacks, which has won both critical and public acclaim.

Early Years

Stage, film, and television actress Jean Elizabeth Smart was born in Seattle on September 13, 1951, to Douglas A. Smart (1917-2003), a high school teacher, and his wife, Kathleen. She had two brothers, Doug and John, and a sister Georgia. Her father, whose parents had emigrated from Scotland, was a life-long Seattle resident. He taught history at Ballard High School from 1953 to 1962 and then at Nathan Hale High School, where he ended his teaching career in 1978 as head of the history department. He also taught citizenship classes at Seattle Central Community College. After leaving the classroom, Smart became a real-estate agent until his retirement in the early 1990s. He died in 2003 at the age of 86 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

As a child, Jean loved watching old movies and enjoying the simple pleasures of childhood. "I know it makes me sound like an old fuddy-duddy, but I lived in a neighborhood where every day after school, we’d get on our bikes or we’d play kick the can, and in the summer, we’d put on plays in our neighbor’s garage" (Spencer). When she was 13, she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.

During her senior year at Ballard High School, Smart studied under drama teacher Earl Kelly, who inspired her decision to major in theater at college. After graduating from high school in 1969, she attended the University of Washington’s Professional Actor Training Program, earning a BA in Fine Arts in 1974. As Smart recalled in an interview: "I was at the UW for five years ... It was great – with great visiting directors and great sets. There were 10 of us in the program, and we were together for three years. It was play after play after play ... a wonderful time and a wonderful training ground, from Shakespeare to just about everything else" ("Jean Smart: From Seattle to Hollywood and Back Again").

Smart said that diabetes played a significant role in her decision to attend the UW. "My mother insisted that I stay in Seattle for college. I had been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when I was 13, and she still hadn’t gotten over that by the time I was getting ready to graduate high school. She was afraid, I think, for me to go out of state to school ... So I have my mother and my diabetes to thank" (White).

Smart relished being at the center of the action, off-stage as well as on. As a UW junior, she dressed up as a character she called Miss Pole-Cat Inlet and announced she was a candidate for Seafair queen, crashing (literally) a breakfast meeting of Greater Seattle and Seafair officials held in November 1971 at the Bainbridge Room of the Washington Plaza Hotel. Dressed in a cheap blonde wig, eyeglasses, and a flapper dress, she swaggered "like Mae West on a toot. 'Miss Pole-Cat Inlet' made a commotion in the kitchen adjoining the Bainbridge Room; crashed through a door, forced herself onto the rostrum and brassily cried: 'There’s maybe just a bit of truth about you guys being stuffy and clubby and Establishment with a big 'E.' I almost didn’t get into the hotel, let alone this room.' [As candidate, she proposed canceling all] '... parades, boat races, horse races, bike races and rat races. They’re coming out of our ears. All that does is bring in tourists to clutter up hotels and stores. Knock off begonia and fuchsia shows. We’ll have a sit-in under the Ballard Bridge for birdwatchers. For virtual and performing arts, we’ll invite barefooted sculptors, woodcarvers and little old ladies in tennis shoes who paint flowers on stones and driftwood ..." ("Seafair Starts Loading Tongue into its Cheek").

Initially, her parents were not pleased with her choice of profession. "My mom thought it was frivolous. She and my dad grew up during the Depression and saw college – they’d both attended – as a privilege, not to be wasted. As soon as my mother started seeing me in shows, though, she said she started thinking, 'Oh, maybe she’s onto something here'" ("Jean Smart: What I Know Now").

Theater reviewers entertained the same thought. While still a college student, Smart was often singled out by reporters for her acting skills. Playing the role of the mother in a 1972 production of Maxwell Anderson’s Bad Seed, her nuanced performance was praised by Seattle Times reporter Carole Beers: "Ms. Smart begins quietly, showing a reasonable, refined side that in no way hints at the hysteria of which she is later a victim. Her sensitivity and sense of proportion make her a joy to watch" (Beers). In 1974, as the eccentric Countess Aurelia in The Madwoman of Chaillot at UW’s Glenn Hughes Theater, she "gave the production the resonant, vital center it requires. Ms. Smart is a fine young actress, and she was delightful as the madwoman" (Johnson).

A Star is Born

Shortly after graduating from college, Smart married John W. Norwalk Jr., a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps, on June 15, 1974, at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Seattle. Without letting any time elapse, she then plunged headlong into launching her acting career. Her first professional season was with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where over the course of three years she played eight roles, earning kudos for her interpretation of both comedic and dramatic characters. In 1975, she was cast in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night; William Hurt played one of her sons, although he was two years older. She also performed in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and Henry VI as well as O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten. In a profile in The Oregonian, Smart mentioned that her husband had another year of service in the Marines and then they would decide where to settle down. "Also, she wants children, and being a diabetic, wants to bear them before she is 30. She is considering nursing as an alternate career" (Perry). Nursing evidently went by the wayside, as did the marriage; the couple divorced in 1977. Smart continued to appear in Seattle playhouses including the Seattle Repertory Theatre, ACT, and Intiman, and also performed at venues around the country from the Pittsburgh Public Theatre to the Alaska Repertory Theatre in Anchorage.

In 1980, she moved to New York City, where she got her first big break: the starring role of Lil, a dying lesbian, in an off-Broadway play called Last Summer at Bluefish Cove. Her performance earned her an Off-Broadway Drama Desk nomination. She repeated the role of Lil on the West Coast in 1983, snagging a Los Angeles Drama Critics award. Smart once called Lil her favorite role: "That started my whole career; that got me my first agent, my first Broadway play – everything" (Carter).

In 1983, she was invited to read for a new television series called Teachers Only. She won the part and relocated to California. Although it lasted only one season, the show opened the door to other TV parts, most of which were short-lived: a sexy secretary (Reggie), a psychologist (Maximum Security), and a jewel thief (Lime Street). "Even back then, no one could quite type her. Maybe because she was tall. Maybe because she had a gift for daffy comedy, but veined with melancholy and poise. Maybe because, as [actress] Melissa McCarthy, who has worked with Smart several times put it, 'You can’t put someone so interesting, so intelligent and so kind in a box'" (Soloski).

Designing a Career

In 1985, Smart and actress Annie Potts guest starred in one episode of Lime Street, a match that inspired series creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason to ask both to appear in a new comedy series she was writing. Smart hesitated because it required a five-year commitment, but she eventually agreed. It turned into one of her most memorable and popular roles: Charlene in the series Designing Women. The show debuted in 1986 and over its five-season run, earned 18 Emmy nominations with one win – for hairstyling in 1988. "On the page, Charlene, the office manager of an interior design firm, may have seemed little more than a sweet, dim blonde, but Smart gave her a resiliency, a legible emotional life and, according to Bloodworth-Thomason, an astonishing degree of realism. 'There was no discernible difference between her acting and her simply being alive,' Bloodworth-Thomason said. 'Really, the greatest gift that a comedian can have is that kind of authenticity'" (Soloski).

While on the set of Designing Women, Smart met the man who would become her second husband. Richard Gilliland (1950-2021) was cast as the boyfriend of Mary Jo Shively, the character played by Potts. The pair hit it off immediately, according to Smart. "He was hilarious ... He would riff on something to the point where I was gasping for air, you know? He had that kind of mind" (Spencer). The couple married in June 1987 in the rose garden of fellow Designing Women actress Dixie Carter (1939-2010) and her husband Hal Holbrook (1925-2021). Smart and Gilliland had two children: son Connor, born in 1989, and another child whom they adopted from China in 2009 at the age of 10 months.

Gilliland died of a heart condition on March 18, 2021, at the age of 71, leaving behind a long list of acting credits, including Operation Petticoat, McMillan & Wife, and Heartland, as well as guest appearances in Criminal Minds, Thirtysomething, and Desperate Housewives, among others. He and Smart had starred together on stage as well as on film and TV, and had another project in the wings before his unexpected death.   

Back-to-Back Emmys

After the success of Designing Women, Smart continued to shine in one television series after another, bouncing between comedy (Frasier and Samantha Who?) and drama (24). She won consecutive Emmys (2000, 2001) for her guest appearances as Lorna Lenley in Frasier, and in 2008, scored her third Emmy for playing Regina Newly in the comedy series, Samantha Who? Between 2000 and 2016, she was nominated for four more Emmys for her work in The District, 24, and Harry’s Law.

Then all of a sudden, the calls stopped coming and the work seemed to dry up. Smart agreed to do a comedy pilot she wasn’t crazy about just to have a job, but backed out of it at the last minute. The next day, she was asked to audition for the role of Floyd Gerhardt in Fargo, a gritty FX-TV crime drama series inspired by the 1996 film of the same title. Her star was once again on the rise. In 2016, she received another Emmy nomination for outstanding supporting actress in Fargo.

Between 2019 and 2021, Smart earned rave reviews for her work in three successive HBO shows: Watchmen, Mare of Easttown, and Hacks. Although the characters were varied, they were all tough, strong-willed women. "These recent characters are women in full command of their power, unworried by what the world might think of them" (Soloski). For Smart, channeling toughness spilled over in other ways. While filming Mare of Easttown, the actress leaned too far over a stair railing, which gave way. She fell down a flight of stairs, cracked a rib and suffered a mild concussion. She returned to the set as soon as she could, remarking she was happy she didn’t break anything that might have kept her from working.

More Back-to-Back Emmys

In Hacks, "Smart plays a flinty, gilded comedy legend named Deborah Vance. Borrowing a ton from the late Joan Rivers, the diva-ish character clings to her Vegas headliner status and adds to her riches selling gaudy trinkets on a home shopping network. When her well-worn shtick begins to calcify, her agent tricks her into accepting some writing help from a jaundiced millennial – herself suddenly on the outs in Hollywood" (Brioux).

Smart’s performance has wowed critics and public alike. "Since 1979, Smart, 69, has shone in small roles, in supporting roles and as a member of ensemble casts. Just as familiar as her face to anyone who has watched TV or movies in the past 40 years are Smart’s dazzlingly deadpan line readings, her come-hither drawl and her signature sharp cackle. But 'Hacks,' which has just been renewed for a second season, is a rarity: It capitalizes on the impressive momentum Smart has created in the last half-decade with an array of ensemble roles as mysterious, disillusioned women (sometimes with a heart of gold, sometimes not) – and it lets one of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood, one of its surest bets to wring a stellar performance out of a small or supporting part, seize a true starring turn" (Maloy).

Smart won an Emmy for lead outstanding actress in a comedy series for Hacks two years in a row (2021, 2022). Series creators Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky commented on her work in a joint statement: "Jean’s range is endless, which meant the possibilities for what we could write for [her character] Deborah were endless. She is so incredibly gifted in both her comedic and dramatic acting that there was no joke we could write that she couldn’t land perfectly, nor was there an emotional moment she couldn’t make incredibly grounded and affecting" (Maloy).

True to Her Roots

Smart’s 40-year acting career, boosted by a resurgence in popularity when the actress was in her mid-60s, is rare by Hollywood standards. Even Smart was at a loss to explain her ongoing popularity. "It’s just kind of incredible ... I don’t know, maybe other women my age are just starting to retire ... I was all that was left!" (Spencer)

Over the years, Smart returned to Seattle to visit family and to advocate for causes that have played a central role in her life, primarily diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. In 2017, she participated in a lecture series at Benaroya Hall about Alzheimer’s disease, presented by The Art of Alzheimer’s and UW Medicine. In 2004, she was a guest speaker at the Alzheimer’s Association’s Rita Hayworth Gala, an event that raised $1.2 million for the cause. She has testified at hearings in the U.S. Senate about diabetes research and funding, and was an ambassador for the entertainment industry’s Diabetes Aware campaign. In May 2000, she returned to Seattle when Ballard High School renamed its performing arts center for drama teacher Earl Kelly, joining the many other students who Kelly inspired during 34 years of teaching.    


"Jean Smart: What I Know Now,” AARP Magazine, April 5, 2022 (; Gayle Jo Carter, “Jean Smart is on Top of Her Game,” AARP Magazine, May 7, 2021 (; Rachel Syme, “Jean Smart Never Went Away,” The New Yorker, June 20, 2021 (; Amy Spencer, “Jean Smart Says the Pressure is on for ‘Hacks” Season 2,” Parade, May 8, 2022, p. 6 (; Robert Heilman, “Seafair Starts Loading Tongue in its Cheek,” The Seattle Times, November 14, 1971, p. D-3; Carole Beers, “’Bad Seed’ Has its Good Points,” Ibid., January 10, 1972, p. A-16; Wayne Johnson, “’Madwoman’ Fine at Glenn Hughes,” Ibid., May 1, 1974, p. F-6; “Jean Smart is Married to John Norwalk, Jr.,” Ibid., June 27, 1974, p. H-1; Jean Godden, “Project Allen is Keeping Under Wraps,” Ibid., May 19, 2000, p. B-1; Stuart Eskenazi, “Teacher Douglas Smart Molded Citizens, Leaders,” Ibid., December 31, 2003; Rob Owen, “Bitten by the Acting Bug in Seattle, Jean Smart Finds her Latest Role in HBO Max Comedy ‘Hacks,’” Ibid., May 10, 2021, Entertainment section (; Douglas Perry, “Jean Smart is Wowing Hollywood in Dueling Comedic and Dramatic Roles, 45 Years After her Oregon Breakthrough,” The Oregonian, May 25, 2021 (; Cydney Henderson, “’Rest Peacefully Dearest’: Richard Gilliland, Actor and Husband to Jean Smart, Dies at 71,” USA Today, March 25, 2021, Entertainment section (; Alexis Soloski, “The Re-Re-Rebirth of Jean Smart,” The New York Times, May 17, 2021, p. C-1 (; Ashley Fetters Maloy, “’Hacks’ Delivers What Audiences Didn’t Know They Needed: Jean Smart in a Starring Role,” The Washington Post, June 11, 2021 (; Abbey White, “Jean Smart Reveals She’s Recovering from Recent Heart Procedure,” The Hollywood Reporter, February 23, 2023, website accessed January 21, 2024 (; Bill Brioux, “Jean Smart: At 69, the ‘Hacks’ and ‘Mare of Easttown’ Star is Crafting a Prolific Second Act,”  Everything Zoomer newsletter, June 16, 2021 website accessed January 18, 2024 (; “Jean Smart: From Seattle to Hollywood and Back Again,” Northwest Prime Time, September 1, 2017 (; Bio: Jean Smart, IMDb website, website accessed January 16, 2024 (


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