March 7, 2012 at 9:16 AM ET
"Downton Abbey" will have at least three more seasons -- the third is now in production in the U.K. But some of the stars have not yet agreed to return for seasons four and five, and one of them is a true fan favorite.
Dame Maggie Smith, 77, who plays the Dowager Countess on the hit "Masterpiece Classic" show, has not yet signed on for those seasons, the U.K. Telegraph reports.
Smith plays the tart-tongued mother of Robert, Earl of Grantham, and has offered up some of the most quotable lines on the show. (Struggling with a swivel chair, she learns from Matthew that it was invented by Thomas Jefferson. "Why does every day involve a fight with an American?" she moans.)
Other major actors who hadn't yet signed on, according to the Telegraph, include Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley), Siobhan Finneran (O’Brien) and Jessica Brown Findlay (Lady Sybil Crawley).
There's some good news for fans. Actors Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary Crawley), Elizabeth McGovern (Cora, Countess of Grantham), Hugh Bonneville (Robert, Earl of Grantham), Joanne Froggatt (Anna) and Brendan Coyle (Bates) are all signed through season five.
And it's already been announced that actress Shirley MacLaine will join the cast as Cora's American mother in season three (see her in costume, in photos leaked from the set).
At 77, MacLaine is the same age as Smith -- will the show feel less inclined to fight to sign Smith if they know another older, takes-no-guff female has already taken up residence at the manor home? Coyle, who plays Mr. Bates, told the British Sun newspaper that "(MacLaine) is very much loved here, her scenes are brilliant."
Smith's character could certainly be written off by death or other means, but fans would miss her greatly.
"Downton Abbey" creator Julian Fellowes has praised Smith's knack for comedy, but also noted that "she can convey deep and powerful emotion without a trace of sentimentality." And in return, Smith has called it "very satisfying" to play the role.
Smith appears in the upcoming film, "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," which will be released in the U.S. on May 4. In contrast to her high-class role on "Downton," in the film, she plays an ex-housekeeper.
Should 'Downton Abbey' do everything possible to re-sign Smith, or can the show lose her and still continue to be popular? Vote in our poll, and tell us on Facebook.