Gandalf actor: Actor Sir Ian McKellen turns 85

Gandalf actor: Actor Sir Ian McKellen turns 85

He made himself immortal in the cinema as the wizard Gandalf. But Sir Ian McKellen feels at home on the theater stage. William Shakespeare shaped his life.

The role of the wizard Gandalf in the “Lord of the Rings” films is probably his most famous. But Sir Ian McKellen prefers not to be in front of the camera, but rather on the theater stage. Even in his old age, the British acting veteran, who turns 85 on May 25th, remains tireless on the boards that mean the world. Sir Ian can be seen in London’s West End around his birthday.

“There is simply nothing more natural than acting,” said McKellen in an interview with the German Press Agency a few years ago. “All the world is a stage and all the men and women are just the players. This is from Shakespeare and it is actually true.”

Shakespeare shaped his career

Always Shakespeare. The work of the important British author, poet and playwright runs like a common thread through his life. Even as a child, McKellen, who was born in 1939 in Burnley, England, took part in a Shakespeare play at school. In 1952, as a twelve-year-old, he played Malvolio in “What You Want”. At 15 he played Montano in “Othello”.

As a student at St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge, he often worked under the direction of John Barton, who later became one of the most influential figures at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). At Barton’s invitation, McKellen joined in 1974. He was part of the ensemble for four years and continued to appear on stage for the RSC thereafter. To date, he has appeared in more than 20 major Shakespeare productions, bringing his works to life in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia.

His program “Acting Shakespeare”, with which he toured worldwide between 1977 and 1990, was also broadcast on television. Other TV productions with Ian McKellen included “The Shakespeare Show” and “Playing Shakespeare”.

Fearless not just on stage

Most of the time, audiences and critics were at his feet. Numerous awards bear witness to this. Ian McKellen’s depictions are considered brilliant, even if they are sometimes controversial. In 2007, he shocked viewers when he dropped his pants as the doddering “King Lear.” In 1974 he even stood completely naked in front of the audience in the role of Edgar. It seems that the Brit is fearless, and not just on stage.

In 1988, McKellen made his homosexuality public in the fight against Clause 28, an expansion of the law against the “promotion of homosexuality” introduced by the Conservative government under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It happened rather casually during a discussion on the radio, “without thinking,” as he later said.

“My friends always knew, and so did my fellow actors, because there are no secrets behind the stage,” he told Capital Gay magazine at the time. “But I had always avoided saying to the press – even the gay press – that I was gay because my private life was my business.”

The law extension was passed. Still, McKellen didn’t give up. He was one of the founders of the influential British organization Stonewall, which continues to campaign for LGBT rights today. Thanks to Stonewall’s lobbying, Clause 28 was eventually repealed in 2003 by the Labor government of Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Film star in the new millennium

In addition to the theater, McKellen increasingly appeared in front of the camera for film and television roles in the 1980s. In a music video by the Pet Shop Boys (“Heart”) he played a lovestruck vampire. In 1999, he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor in “Gods and Monsters.” Hollywood took notice.

Shortly after the turn of the millennium – McKellen was already 60 – his film career reached a new level. He first played the villain Magneto in the star-studded Marvel comic adaptation “X-Men” in 2000. His counterpart in the film was Professor Xavier, portrayed by McKellen’s close friend and theater colleague Patrick Stewart. Several sequels followed.

A year later he took on the (cinema) role of his life. As Gandalf in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, he thrilled an audience of millions and received a second Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for the first part “The Fellowship of the Ring”. The scene in which he confronts a giant demon, the Balrog, in the mines of Moria with the words “You can’t pass!” shouting is legendary.

“I was undoubtedly not the first choice for Gandalf,” McKellen said in a 2023 “Variety” interview. “Tony Hopkins turned down the role. Sean Connery definitely did too. Now they’re all coming out of their holes and I hope they feel stupid.” For “The Hobbit” trilogy (2012-2014) he once again took on the role of the wise wizard, which made him immortal in the cinema.

Pub quizzes and cat singing

He took a prop with him from filming “The Hobbit.” Gandalf’s magic wand is now behind the counter of the traditional pub “The Grapes” in east London. McKellen, who has been able to call himself Sir Ian since being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1991, is co-owner of the pub and lives just a few doors away. He is occasionally spotted at The Grapes and is even said to take part in the pub quiz from time to time.

To date, he has well over 100 film and television roles in his CV. He never received as much attention for any of his roles as he did for Gandalf. In 2019, however, his appearance as Gus, the theater cat, in the Hollywood box office flop “Cats” caused general smiles. The musical film adaptation with many stars grossed significantly less than it cost.

“I had a lot of fun,” McKellen told the German Press Agency at the time. Also because he stood in front of the camera for “Cats” with his girlfriend and former RSC colleague Judi Dench. The fact that he also sang in the film was a professional first for him. “I sing a lot at home,” he said, “but not in public.” The negative criticism for the film bounced off the veteran actor.

And always Shakespeare

Film roles have become somewhat rarer in recent years. Ian McKellen preferred to be on theater stages. He toured tirelessly, especially through Great Britain. For his 80th birthday five years ago, he gave 80 solo shows in different theaters, in which he performed excerpts from Shakespeare’s works as well as passages from “The Lord of the Rings.” He improvised and involved the audience directly.

Around his 85th birthday, Sir Ian McKellen can currently be seen in London in the almost three and a half hour play “Player Kings” before he goes on tour with it. The modern adaptation, in which he plays Falstaff, combines both parts of “Henry IV.” and comes – of course – from the pen of William Shakespeare.

Source: Stern

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