What You Never Knew About Jean Smart

Whether you know her from "Designing Women," "Sweet Home Alabama," "Frasier," "Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce," "Mare of Easttown," or any one of the other dozens of films and television shows she has appeared in, you can't deny that Jean Smart is a superstar. Born on September 13, 1951, Smart has been gracing our screens for decades and has proven herself just as adept at drama as she is at comedy. With multiple Emmys under her belt, as noted by TV Guide, generations of fans have grown up admiring this iconic star, but there's a lot you probably don't know about her.

You may be familiar with her work, but there's far more to Smart than just good looks and loads of talent. There's her big regret about her career, for example, as well as her surprising childhood ambition. Let's dig a little bit deeper and get to know more about this iconic actress.

Jean Smart had a humble but happy childhood

Jean Smart says she owes it to her mother, a homemaker, and her father, a teacher, for raising her with a strong work ethic. One of four children, Smart told "Today" that her family "didn't have a lot of extras" growing up, but that this didn't bother her.

It was a simple childhood, and Smart never strayed too far from her Seattle home. "I didn't even fly on an airplane until I was 20 years old," she said. She described her upbringing as "very happy," adding that she was "just expected to help out" and that she got her first job — bringing meals to patients at a hospital — when she was just 15 years old. While some teenagers might have balked at having to work before even getting their high school diploma, Smart is grateful that she learned the value of hard work at such a young age.

In an interview with Variety, she combatted the notion that "you kind of need to suffer or have a dysfunctional childhood to be creative." Smart said that she's "never bought into that" and "certainly didn't experience that."

This is what Jean Smart aspired to be as a child

Jean Smart's talent for performance was apparent at a young age, but she didn't grow up dreaming of being a movie star. She did, however, want to enter the arts — just in a different way. In an interview with Town & Country, she revealed that she had always wanted to enter the world of stand-up comedy, and had idolized Phyllis Diller as a kid — even going to a middle school party dressed as the famous comedienne.

Alas, Smart "never had the guts to try it," as she told Variety. Talented actress though she may be, comedy is a completely different beast. She explained that "it's painfully obvious when you're failing" at comedy, and that speaking directly to the audience can be unnerving — especially when you don't do well. "So, I didn't ever want to put myself in that position," she confessed.

She has lived with diabetes for most of her life

At the age of 13, Jean Smart experienced weight loss, excessive thirst, and a need to go to the bathroom frequently. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, she said that "the doctor knew even without testing what the problem was," and she was diagnosed with diabetes. While her mother helped her keep the condition under control while she was in high school, she said she "sort of got lackadaisical" in her college years and "was not as disciplined," which meant her "system got used to running on incredibly high blood sugar levels.”

For years, she more or less ignored her diabetes, rarely bothering to test her blood sugar levels. It wasn't until she got pregnant with her son, Connor, that she began to take her condition seriously out of fear that her diabetes would impact her then-unborn child. She got her blood sugar to a safer level and became what she calls "a professional diabetic."

These days, she tests her blood sugar several times a day and is much more of "a disciplined person" than she thought she ever could be. "But I had no choice," she explained. "What you do for a baby is more than you'll ever do for yourself.”

Jean Smart got her start in theater

While we know Jean Smart best for her roles in shows and films like "Designing Women," "Garden State," "Samantha Who?," and "Mare of Easttown," for years her focus was on the stage rather than on the big or small screens. After graduating from college, she set her sights on the Seattle theater scene. While Seattle might not seem like a big showbiz city, Smart told NPR that "there's a lot of professional theater in Seattle," and she was able to support herself fresh out of school — barely. "I managed to just get by, you know?" she said. "You'd always think, oh, jeez, I don't know if I have next month's rent. But something would come along."

Per her alum bio at her alma mater, the University of Washington, she eventually transitioned to Broadway, starring as Marlene Dietrich in 1981's "Piaf." Even after she turned to on-camera work, Smart continued to trod the boards, earning a Tony nod for Best Actress in a Play for her role in 2000's "The Man Who Came to Dinner."

Moving to NYC changed everything for Jean Smart

Jean Smart's success on Broadway eventually led to film and TV stardom, but it almost never happened. As she told Bustle, she had never considered film work early in her career. "I'd been trained to be a stage actor, and I loved it," she said.

Still, the acclaim she drew for her stage roles in her hometown of Seattle made her wonder if the universe had more in store for her so, at the age of 28, she made the decision to move across the country to the Big Apple — much to her mother's dismay. She quickly fell in love with the city and began going on auditions, landing her big break in the show "The Last Summer at Blue Fish Cove." Per Playbill, she was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for her role in the production, but the play opened other doors for her, too. "That got me my first agent, my first Broadway show, it started everything for me," she told Bustle. Three years after landing the role, she moved to Los Angeles where she reprised her role on the LA stage — and "got an HBO series" thanks to the attention her performance drew. "It really started everything for me," said Smart.

Jean Smart has starred in some of the biggest TV shows out there

Jean Smart landed her first major sitcom role in 1980, playing Shari in "Teachers Only." More sitcom roles followed, with her many credits including Joan Reynolds in "Reggie," Charlene Frazier Stillfield in "Designing Women," and Ellie Walker in "High Society." Smart's talents aren't restricted to just comedy, though, and she's starred in many a television drama including "Maximum Security," on which she played Dr. Allison Brody; "The District," playing Detective Sherry Regan; and "24," portraying Martha Logan.

Smart has also done lots of voiceover work — you might recognize her as the voice of Dr. Ann Possible on "Kim Possible" or as Depression Kitty on "Big Mouth." Other notable television credits include roles in "Samantha Who?," "Hawaii Five-0," "Fargo," "Legion," "Mare of Easttown," and "Hacks." With such an impressive resume, it's no wonder that Variety calls Smart "TV's MVP."

This is Jean Smart's one big career regret

When it comes to acting, it seems like Jean Smart has pretty much done it all. She's had a successful stage career, and has starred in some pretty major sitcoms and films. She does, however, have one big regret when it comes to her career: that she didn't embark on a career in musicals when she was younger. As she explained to Bustle, the director of her acting program in college "looked down on musicals" as "he didn't consider them 'legitimate' theater."

Later in life, she participated in "Encore!"–  a program "where they did stage readings of classic musicals that don't get done [very] often" — helping her achieve her long-held dream. She appeared in "Promises, Promises," explaining that it morphed from a simple stage reading "into a full-blown production," although it didn't have a long run. Smart had a blast. "It was one of the most fun things I've ever done in my entire life," she said. "And I thought: why, why, why, why didn't I do this earlier?"

Jean Smart immediately fell in love with her Hacks character

Her role as comedian Deborah Vance in "Hacks" allowed Jean Smart to fulfill, in a way, her childhood ambition of being a stand-up comic, but that's not the only reason Smart fell in love with the character. In an interview with IndieWire, she said that Deborah reminded her of some of her past iconic characters, having "little bits and pieces of my favorite roles that I've played," including Lana from the sitcom "Frasier" as well as Laurie Blake from the TV series "Watchmen." Smart knew she couldn't turn the role down since "some of my ... favorite standout characters have all kind of come together, embodied within this one woman."

If Smart thought the role was a perfect fit, there's a good reason for it — the show's creators, Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky, always envisioned Smart in the role. "Jean was always like the dream," Aniello told The New York Times. "Like, if there's a world where God is real and maybe we behave really, really well our whole lives, that could happen."

Clearly, it was a match made in heaven, with Smart calling it "a dream part" that has "everything."

The death of Jean Smart's first husband 'leveled' her

Not much is known about Jean Smart's first husband, whom she married before she found fame. Even his name isn't publicly known, but we do know that he meant a lot to her thanks to an interview she gave in 1992 to the Chicago Tribune. In the interview, Smart opened up about her former flame, saying that the marriage ended in divorce but that, even after the two parted ways, they remained close friends. When he died in a car accident, Smart was crushed — especially because, outside of her grandparents, he was the first person close to her to have died. "It really did me in — for years," she said. "He'd meant so much to me. He was a very important part of my life — my first love in every sense of the word."

Smart had just recently moved to New York when her first husband died and told The Philadelphia Inquirer that the loss "leveled" her. Making it all the more heartbreaking was that he was so young and should have had his whole life ahead of him. "I think the first time you lose somebody you love [it] changes you forever, especially when it's a young person," she said.

Jean Smart said her husband 'sacrificed his career' for her

Jean Smart found love again with actor Richard Gilliland when he appeared on an episode of "Designing Women." While Smart told The Philadelphia Inquirer that she doesn't think actors should marry each other, she admitted that "there isn't anybody else in the business who knows what you go through as an actor."

Per the Chicago Tribune, Smart was 36 when she and Gilliland tied the knot in 1987. While he was a talented actor in his own right, Gilliland never became quite the household name that Smart did, something Smart told The New Yorker is partially because of her, saying he "never got the chance to really show what he could do" outside of "a couple of times on stage." She explained that, rather than pursue fame for himself, her husband "really sacrificed his career for me to be able to take advantage of my opportunities." It's something that Smart is still grateful for, saying, "I wouldn't have all this if it wasn't for him."

Jean Smart thought she wouldn't be able to have biological children

Because of her diabetes, Jean Smart never thought that she would safely be able to carry a child. She was shocked, then, when she found herself pregnant, as she had not been trying to conceive. "The doctor was upset with me," she told the Chicago Tribune, revealing that she had "been told by more than one doctor not even to consider having babies" because of the possibility they could potentially have health problems.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that diabetics can have successful pregnancies and give birth to healthy children, it's important for them to take certain precautions, including keeping their blood sugar levels under control — something Smart had not been doing when she first got pregnant. Fortunately, Smart gave birth to a healthy son, Connor, in 1989, and she couldn't have been more thrilled. "There's nothing like having this tiny little being depend on you, without you they won't survive. ... you realize that you could do anything almost to protect that child," she told The Philadelphia Inquirer.

In 2009, she adopted a daughter named Bonnie from China, telling People's Celebrity Baby Blog her new child was "the smartest, funniest, most darling gift."

One of Jean Smart's ancestors was accused of witchcraft

It's clear that Jean Smart is a once-in-a-generation talent, not to mention someone who marches to the beat of her own drum. It turns out that this is something that runs in the family, as Smart found out on genealogy series "Who Do You Think You Are?" On the show, which is produced by "Friends" star Lisa Kudrow, Smart found out that she has quite the fierce ancestress: Dorcas Hoar.

While the name might not ring any bells, you've probably heard of the Salem Witch Trials, during which Smart's eighth great-grandmother was arrested and tried for witchcraft. "She was an unconventional gal," Smart told TV Insider.

According to the website of the Salem Witch Museum, Hoar eventually confessed to witchcraft and was sentenced to be hanged. She managed to escape the noose, however, after several prominent people asked for a stay of execution for her "to prepare for death and eternity." The trials ended before Hoar's scheduled execution, and she was eventually released and seemed to live a quieter life after that.

Jean Smart has some issues with how women are portrayed in Hollywood

Strong women clearly run in Jean Smart's family, so it's no wonder that she has some pretty strong views on feminism and how women are treated in Hollywood. Having been in the industry for so many decades, she's seen how much things have changed over the years, particularly how female characters have become more represented and more nuanced. In an interview with Vox, she said that "women have always been sort of underrepresented in stories because it used to be that it was only men who were out in the world doing things. ... Women weren't out in public. They were at home." She explained that storytelling has evolved so that women on TV and film and in plays are "finally starting to reflect the real world."

That being said, things are far from perfect. As Smart has grown older, she's come up against ageism. "I think just now that I'm not, you know, 35, it's a lot harder, simply because you go to a movie, how many people my age are there?" she said, explaining that while there are always plenty of roles for older men, the same can't be said for women. As Smart put it, "over a certain age they think, 'Well, if you're not sexually attractive, what possible reason would we have to look at you' ... But women can be funny and everything they were at 30 [when they're older]."

Jean Smart was devastated by Richard Gilliland's death

Jean Smart and her husband, Richard Gilliland, had their ups and downs over the years. She revealed to The Philadelphia Inquirer that they were once separated but that their time apart didn't last very long. "I just realized how much I missed him as a friend, as a husband and comparing him to some other people that I met," she said.

After they reunited, they remained together until Gilliland's death due to a heart condition in 2021. His death came unexpectedly, and left Smart reeling as she was completely unprepared to lose her husband. "It's been really weird," she told The New Yorker. "It's not anything I ever dreamed would happen. Not so soon."

Smart recalled their long relationship, speaking of his sense of humor. "He made me laugh all the time," she said. "That's going to be hard to live without"