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British Acting Royalty: Always In Demand, on Stage and in Hollywood

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Actresses Dame Judi Dench (L) and actress dame Maggie Smith, two icons of British film, appeared together in “Ladies …

These days, it seems there's a hot new thing on the movie scene every other week. But it takes a lot more than a few red carpets and magazine covers to develop a lasting career: It takes quality performances in quality projects. Just ask these British thespians who've enjoyed decades-long careers with dozens of fine credits — and official recognition from the Queen — to their names.

Judi Dench

Dame Judi Dench began her professional acting career in 1957 with the Old Vic Company and subsequently established herself as a great British theatre actress. British audiences also knew her from a starring role in the long-running domestic comedy TV series "As Time Goes By."

Of course, she has since also established herself as a powerhouse of film. Dench appeared in no less than six films last year including the Oscar-nominated "My Week With Marilyn," biopic "J. Edgar" and box-office juggernaut "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides."

In November, she reprises the role of M, the head of Foreign Intelligence for Her Majesty's Secret Service, in the next 007 installment, "Skyfall."

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Sir Ian McKellen wasn’t known worldwide until later in his long career, most notably in the “Lord of the Rings” …

Ian McKellen

Like many British actors, Sir Ian McKellen started out on the stage. In fact, despite acting professionally since the early 1960s (and appearing in his first film in 1969), it wasn't until the 1990s that he started to gain popular notoriety through his film work. His incredibly diverse resume spans Shakespearean stage productions to the "X-Men" films, and he was nominated for an Oscar for a breakout performance in "Gods and Monsters" in 1998.

Of course, he's perhaps best known to wide audiences for portraying Gandalf in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. It's a role he'll take on again in the upcoming "Hobbit" trilogy, with the first installment slated to be released later this year.

Maggie Smith

With a career that's spanned highbrow ("Othello") to more mainstream fare ("Sister Act," "Harry Potter"), Dame Maggie Smith shows no sign of slowing down at the age of 77. The formidable actress, known for both dramatic and comedic roles, has most recently graced the small screen in her Emmy-winning role of Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham in "Downton Abbey."

While she's most recently brought her acting prowess to TV, let's not forget she's also a six-time Oscar nominee and two-time winner: for "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" in 1969 and "California Suite in 1979. But she's probably best known to movie audiences worldwide for playing Professor McGonagall in the "Harry Potter" movies.

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Dame Helen Mirren (shown here with her husband, film director Taylor Hackford) is known as much for looking great …

Helen Mirren

A revered stage and screen actress, Dame Helen Mirren isn't just acting royalty — she's played actual royalty on film. Her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in the 2006 film "The Queen" earned the dynamo the Oscar for Best Actress. Off-screen, she turned heads with her stunning styles as she made the award-show circuit, looking sexy at 67.

But she was well known in England long before "The Queen" — as a television actress, having brought life to the gritty detective in the "Prime Suspect" series. From 1992 until 2006, she played a woman fighting for respect, and to nab suspects, in a police world dominated by men.

Next up, Mirren appears in a yet-to-be-titled Phil Spector biopic alongside Al Pacino and an Alfred Hitchcock biopic starring Anthony Hopkins.

Michael Caine

Like Helen Mirren, Sir Michael Caine was born to working-class parents who scoffed at the idea of acting as a profession. His start in showbiz came when he took on a job as a lowly film production manager and, later, as an assistant stage manager at a British theatre in the 1950s.

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Michael Caine is best known recently for playing Alfred, Batman's butler. (Photo by Ferdaus Shamim/WireImage)

After bit parts in TV and movies, he first gained international attention starring as a British army officer in 1964's "Zulu." Subsequent hits in the '60s included "The Ipcress File" and the title role in "Alfie" (later remade starring fellow Brit Jude Law). The actor has two supporting-actor Oscars to his name: for "Hannah and Her Sisters" (1987) and "The Cider House Rules" (2000).

This summer, he reprised his role of Alfred, Batman's right-hand man, in "The Dark Knight Rises."

by Chris Mejaski

Top: Actresses Dame Judi Dench (L) and actress dame Maggie Smith, two icons of British film, appeared together in "Ladies In Lavender." (Photo by Dave Hogan/Getty Images)

Upper right: Sir Ian McKellen wasn't known worldwide until later in his long career, most notably in the "Lord of the Rings" films. (Photo by Eamonn McCormack/WireImage)

Left: Dame Helen Mirren (shown here with her husband, film director Taylor Hackford) is known as much for looking great at middle age as for her stellar acting. (Photo by Venturelli/WireImage)

Bottom right: Michael Caine is best known recently for playing Alfred, Batman's butler. (Photo by Ferdaus Shamim/WireImage)

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