Whatever Happened to Jean Smart? (Charlene Frazier From "Designing Women")

Updated on August 6, 2020
Rachelle Williams profile image

I was an 80s teen, so I love covering all things Generation X!

Beautiful Actress, Jean Smart
Beautiful Actress, Jean Smart

When I think about the actress Jean Smart, warm memories come to mind and a smile spreads across my face. I can still hear Smart's Designing Women character's name, "Char-leeen," being twanged out in the perfectly pitched Southern drawl of the iconic character Julia Sugarbaker, played with precision by actress Dixie Carter.

Of course, many of the members of Generation X will remember Jean Smart well from her role as Charlene Frazier on the 80s TV show Designing Women, but she's gone on to do so much more...and I'm here to fill in the gaps. Settle in, so we can learn all about what ever happened to Jean Smart.

Jean Smart & Carolyn Cope in the controversial, lesbian themed play, "The Children’s Hour," by Lillian Helman.
Jean Smart & Carolyn Cope in the controversial, lesbian themed play, "The Children’s Hour," by Lillian Helman.

The Early Years & Theater Work

Jean Smart was born and raised in Seattle, Washington. She is the daughter of a homemaker and a teacher and she has three siblings. When she was only 13 years old, she discovered she had type I diabetes (juvenile diabetes), but that didn't stop her from living a normal life.

Smart graduated from Ballard High School in 1969, with the original intention of going to college to be a veterinarian. However, she discovered a love and a true talent for acting, so she went on to graduate from the University of Washington (UWA) with a Bachelor of Fine Arts.

While at UWA, she attended the Professional Actors Training Program. Smart gained her professional start with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The actress performed well in regional theater work, so she eventually went on a theatrical tour that stretched from Alaska to Connecticut.

In the mid-1970s, she moved to New York and she continued professional work in Off-Broadway projects that included playing Lady Macbeth. She went on to play Marlene Dietrich on Broadway in 1981.

From the Stage to the Screen

By the early 1980s, Jean Smart secured small TV roles on 80s TV staples, like The Facts of Life and Alice. Smart eventually landed much larger roles on TV shows like Teacher's Only, alongside Lynn Redgrave and Norman Fell, and Reggie, where she costarred with Barbara Barrie and Richard Mulligan.

By the time her big break came along in 1986, Smart had already well established herself as a capable actress. The big break, of course, was being cast as Charlene Frazier Stillfield in Designing Women, a role which she played until 1991.

As Charlene, she was a little bit of a ditzy blonde, but she had a gigantic heart, an enormous family, and a comical history of choosing the wrong type of man. Many of us associated Jean Smart with Charlene Frazier, but boy were we wrong...

After Designing Women

When Designing Women wrapped its iconic and historic run in 1991, Jean Smart went on to co-starring in TV movies. Notably, Smart played Aileen Wuornos in the made for TV movie Overkill: The Aileen Wuornos Story.

While Smart's version in the TV movie was no match for Charlize Theron's version from the blockbuster film Monster, it was jarring for those of us who knew her as "Charlene" to see her as a serial killing, lesbian prostitute—this is absolutely no offense meant toward Aileen Wuornos, whom I felt was more a victim than anything else...but, I digress.

Smart's next major victory would come in 1995, where she co-starred on the TV show High Society, opposite actress Mary McDonnell. The show ran for 13 episodes, it had a theme song sung by Chaka Khan, and it was a decent comedy for its time, but it failed to win audiences.

Jean Smart's next major role was another co-starring part in the TV show Style & Substance in 1998. This time, she was paired with actress Nancy McKeon, but the show didn't last past its first year. Smart finished out the 90s with smaller roles and a voice role in the Disney animated TV series Hercules.

From Slapstick Comedian to Highly Respected Dramatic Thespian

By the time the year 2000 came along, Jean Smart's acting prowess became evident to everyone. She was cast as Lana Gardner in another iconic TV show, Frasier. For her role of Lana Gardner, she won two Emmy Awards for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series.

Around the same time she was successfully proving her worth on Frasier, she was also voice acting the role of Pickles Oblong on the animated series The Oblongs. The series focuses on a poor family who, as a result of pollution and radiation exposure, are all disabled or deformed. The Oblongs only lasted one season, but it has gone on to have a cult status.

Jean Smart Voice Acts the Role of Pickles Oblong
Jean Smart Voice Acts the Role of Pickles Oblong

Now, as far as Jean Smart being a highly respected thespian, you'd better hold on tight now, because things move pretty fast from here on out. After her big Emmy wins on Frasier, Jean Smart moved onto the big screen with parts opposite Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama (2002) and Steve Martin and Queen Latifah in Bringing Down the House (2003).

Smart scored more voice acting roles on animated series like Static Shock, Kim Possible, and Hey Arnold. She also had film roles in Garden State (2004) and I Heart Huckabees (2004). She had starring roles in several TV series, including In-Laws, The District, Center of the Universe, and the crazy popular terrorist drama 24, opposite Kiefer Sutherland.

Next, Smart was cast in the role of Regina Newly in the TV series Samantha Who? In this series, she works alongside Christina Applegate and Melissa McCarthy. Her character, Regina Newly, is the dysfunctional mother of a retrograde amnesiac (Applegate) who discovers she was totally unlikable in her former life, so she sets out to make amends. This role garnered Jean Smart her third Primetime Emmy award in 2007.

After Samantha Who? wrapped in 2009, Jean Smart didn't skip a beat—she was everywhere from guest starring roles in Psych, Hawaii Five-O, and Harry's Law to Hot in Cleveland, Getting On, and Sirens.

In 2015, Jean Smart was cast as Floyd Gerhardt in the epic TV series Fargo. The series is a combination black comedy/drama that is based on the famed Cohen brothers film by the same name. Smart absolutely set the screen on fire with her portrayal of Gerhardt, who was the matriarch of a North Dakota crime family. For her performance in Fargo, she won a Critics' Choice Television Award and a Primetime Emmy Award nomination.

Jean Smart & Ed Asner in "Getting Ed Laid" (2016)
Jean Smart & Ed Asner in "Getting Ed Laid" (2016)

2015 brought Jean Smart to a starring role as Katherine Miller in the TV series Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce and she had a memorable role as an older hooker in the film short Getting Ed Laid, opposite Ed Asner. This film was a joy to watch as it was specifically written for Asner, and he and Smart shined together as two people who have more in common than they first suspected.

Since 2016, Smart has had dozens of guest appearances on shows from Veep to Arrested Development, and more prevalent roles in the TV series like Dirty John and the the FX comic book/sci-fi series Legion.

Legion is based on a Marvel comic book character named David Haller. Haller is a mutant, who from a young age is diagnosed as a schizophrenic. Jean Smart plays the role of Melanie Bird, Haller's psychiatrist.

Most recently, Jean Smart is once again setting the small screen ablaze in her role as Agent Laurie Blake on the HBO sci-fi/historical drama TV series, Watchmen. Completely switching gears from Marvel, Watchmen is based on the DC Comics superhero series.

In Watchmen, Smart co-stars alongside Academy Award winner Regina King. She plays the role of Agent Laurie Blake, a former second Silk Spectre, who has since become an FBI agent and member of the Anti-Vigilante Task Force. For her role of Agent Blake, Jean Smart has recently won yet another Critics' Choice Television Award, this time for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series.

She has also recently made an appearance on the HBO limited TV series Mare of Easttown (2020), starring Kate Winslet. And, currently, she is in post-production on a sci-fi project called Superintelligence (2020), opposite Melissa McCarthy, and a comedy called, Senior Moment (2020), opposite William Shatner.

Jean Smart and her husband, Richard Gilliland (remember him from "Designing Women?")
Jean Smart and her husband, Richard Gilliland (remember him from "Designing Women?")

Her Personal Life

As for her personal life, Jean Smart has been married since the 1989 to actor Richard Gilliland. Jean and Richard met on the set of Designing Women. You may remember that Gilliland played the role of Mary Jo Shively's (Annie Potts) boyfriend, J.D. Shackleford. They have a son, Connor, and a daughter, Bonnie Kathleen.

Indeed, Jean Smart has shown herself to be a talented and versatile actress, as she continues to make us howl with laughter and sit white-knuckled on the edge of our seats. She has been a constant in our lives, and in a recent AARP interview, she indicated she wanted to keep acting until she is 100 years old. As long as Jean Smart keeps on acting, we'll keep on watching.

Interesting Familial History

Did you know that Jean Smart discovered she is a direct descendant of Dorcas Galley, one of the last women to be accused in the Salem Witch Trials?

Jean Smart Today
Jean Smart Today


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    • Rachelle Williams profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachelle Williams 

      6 months ago from Tempe, AZ

      You're Welcome! Anytime!

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      6 months ago from The Caribbean

      YES, I remember Charlene on Designing Women and loved her too. thanks for the updates on the life and work of this talented actress.


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