BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Just how far will a British gentleman go to support the man who dresses him?
Hugh Bonneville, who plays the usually very proper Lord Grantham on PBS’ “Downton Abbey,” tore off his tie and ripped open his shirt before a roomful of reporters Saturday night to reveal a T-shirt that read “Free Bates.”
So, OK, it wasn’t exactly a striptease. And it’s not as if Bonneville dropped his trousers — something that’s happened a time or two, onstage, during Television Critics Association events — but for PBS’ portion of the group’s summer meetings, which began this weekend in Beverly Hills, it counted as a Moment.
And a nearly spontaneous one at that, Bonneville having conceived the idea only that morning. “I don’t know how it came up, but I said, ‘How about getting a T-shirt with Free Bates on it?’ and someone went out “and bought a T-shirt and stenciled it on,” he said afterward.
“Downton Abbey,” whose second season on “Masterpiece” last week received 16 Emmy nominations, including one for outstanding drama and another for Bonneville as a lead actor, is giving once-staid PBS plenty of moments these days, none perhaps more anticipated than the one in which Maggie Smith, as the dowager countess, comes face to face with Shirley MacLaine for the first time on-screen in Season 3, which won’t air here until next winter.
PBS ran a teaser reel for critics and let’s just say that despite some hard times ahead for the Grantham family, hilarity does ensue between the formidable women.
Offscreen, too, apparently.
The Emmy-nominated Smith, alas, wasn’t among the cast who crossed the pond for the critics’ shindig. Besides Bonneville, they were the Emmy-nominated Brendan Coyle, who plays the unlucky Bates, currently serving a life sentence for a murder we’re all pretty sure he didn’t commit; the Emmy-nominated Michelle Dockery, who’s Lady Mary; the Emmy-nominated Joanne Froggatt, who portrays Bates’ loyal wife, Anna; and Elizabeth McGovern, who’s Cora, Lady Grantham.
And we also got MacLaine, who may have had less distance to travel but came prepared to play.
When I asked the actress, who’s playing American Martha Levinson, Cora’s brash mother, whether she and Smith had ever met before, she started to laugh.
“Oh, God. Should I tell this story?” she said.
Of course she should, I told her.
“Well, we were lovers in another life,” she joked.
Turns out, though, that while MacLaine thought the two were meeting for the first time in this one, that wasn’t true.
Smith “told me that we had met 40 years ago backstage at the Oscars next to the catering table,” MacLaine said.
“And I was up for something, and there was this big chocolate cake on the catering table. And whatever I was up for, I lost, and somebody else won. And Maggie said, ‘You know what you did, dear? You tucked right into that chocolate cake and said, ‘(Expletive) it. I don’t care if I’m thin ever again.’ She remembered more than me, but then she’s younger than me. She’s one year younger,” the 78-year-old actress said of Smith.
“She brought that great spirit she has onto the set,” Bonneville said afterward of working with MacLaine. “When Shirley clapped eyes on (Smith), it was like Stanley meeting Livingstone. It was like these two great legends, or these two great explorers of our industry, meeting. And I think Shirley literally lifted Maggie off the ground with a hug, saying, ‘My God!’ It was great. It was a great moment.”