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Downton Abbey Boss Addresses Maggie Smith Departure Buzz: 'It's Entirely Up to Her'

Maggie Smith Downton AbbeyIs Downton Abbey‘s Dowager Countess down for the count?

Amid rumors that Dame Maggie Smith will depart PBS’ Emmy-winning phenom at the end of the upcoming third season, series creator Julian Fellowes sat down with TVLine to set the record straight about the future of Downton‘s acid-tongued treasure.

In short, the ball is in her court.

“I can’t tell you, ‘Oh, yes, she’s definitely contracted [for Season 4] — because she isn’t,” Fellowes admitted to me Saturday during a media-packed day at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour in Beverly Hills. “It’s entirely up to her when she stays and when she goes.”

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As TVLine reported back in March, most of Downton‘s principal cast — including Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary), Elizabeth McGovern (Cora), Hugh Bonneville (Robert), Joanne Froggatt (Anna) and Brendan Coyle (Bates) — are signed on through a potential fourth and fifth season. Smith, however, opted against making a formal long-term commitment.

“With Maggie, you never know,” shrugged Fellowes. “Other [actors] sign on for the next series and they sign for this and they sign for that, but she doesn’t. She stays her own person.

“But as far as I’m concerned,” he adds, “I hope she stays with the show until Downton falls down.”

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Fellowes, meanwhile, squashed speculation that another Downton fixture — leading man Dan Stevens, who plays Matthew — may be eying an early exit. “Dan is in the show,” he maintained. “A lot of stuff started up because he’s going to be on Broadway [this fall in The Heiress], but it’s a limited run. He’s only in it for three months, but of course everyone pounced on that.”

Downton‘s third season is expected to bow stateside in early 2013.