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Ian McKellen

Sir Ian McKellen takes a day out at , Hollywood, April 2000. Although a veteran performer on both stage and screen, he has only recently taken up serious roles.
Sir Ian McKellen takes a day out at Universal Studios, Hollywood, April 2000. Although a veteran performer on both stage and screen, he has only recently taken up serious Hollywood roles.

Sir Ian Murray McKellen, CBE (born May 25, 1939) is a highly acclaimed British actor on both stage and screen, regarded by many as the greatest living British actor. His roles have spanned genres from serious Shakespearean and modern theatre to popular action movies. He is also well known as a campaigner for gay rights.


Youth and early career

McKellen was born in Burnley, Lancashire, shortly before the outbreak of World War II, and has indicated that this had some impact on him. In an interview with The Advocate magazine (December 25, 2001), when an interviewer remarked that he seemed quite calm in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attack, he said: "Well, darling, you forget — I slept under a steel plate [during the Battle of Britain] until I was four years old." (Quotes in this article are from the Advocate interview unless otherwise noted.)

McKellen's father, Denis Murray McKellen, a civil engineer, was a lay preacher, and both of his grandfathers were preachers as well. His home environment was strongly Christian, but non-orthodox. "My upbringing was of low nonconformist Christians who felt that you led the Christian life in part by behaving in a Christian manner to everybody you met." When he was 12, his mother, Margery Lois McKellen (née Sutcliffe) died; his father died when he was 24.

When he came out of the closet to his stepmother, Gladys McKellen, who was a Quaker: "Not only was she not fazed, but as a member of a society which declared its indifference to people's sexuality years back, I think she was just glad for my sake that I wasn't lying any more."

McKellen's acting career started while he was still a boy. He won a scholarship to St. Catharine's College, University of Cambridge when he was 18, where he developed an intense crush on Derek Jacobi. He has characterised it as "a passion that was undeclared and unrequited." McKellen made his stage début in Coventry in 1961 and his West End début in 1964. He was already a major name in the theatre before establishing himself as a television and film actor.

He and his first lover, Brian Taylor, began their relationship in 1964. It was a relationship that was to last for eight years, ending in 1972. They lived in London, where McKellen continued to pursue his career as an actor.

First major stage roles

The role that made McKellen famous was his 1969 portrayal of King Edward II of England in the Prospect Theatre Company 's touring production of Marlowe's Edward II. The production was controversial for its explicit torture scenes and implicit homosexuality. He later reprised the role for the BBC. In 1972, he founded the Actors' Company with his friend Edward Petherbridge, and this was the beginning of his reputation as a spokesman for actors and the British theatre in general. Between 1974 and 1978, he enhanced his reputation with leading roles in Royal Shakespeare Company productions such as Romeo and Juliet (in which he played opposite Francesca Annis) and Macbeth (opposite Judi Dench).

In 1978 he met his second lover, Sean Mathias , at the Edinburgh Festival. According to Mathias, the love affair was tempestuous, with conflicts over McKellen's success in acting versus Mathias' somewhat less-successful career. Mathias said that "in those days, the world was far more homophobic, and me being the young, pretty boy — people wouldn't take me seriously as an actor, being Ian's boyfriend." Mathias was 22 when they met; McKellen 39. However, Mathias also says McKellen "did nothing but help me" in his career.

Award-winning successes

McKellen starred on Broadway in Bent, a play about gay men in Nazi death camps, starting in 1979. Despite his role in this groundbreaking play, which brought to public view for the first time in a widespread way the persecution of gay people in Nazi Germany, McKellen was not yet out publicly. At first, he was unsure whether he dared to take the role. "As impressed as I was by it, I thought 'My God! Do I dare be in this?' And Sean read it and said, 'Well you have to do it'," he said.

Bent proved to be of great significance to McKellen. Since starring in the original Broadway production of Bent, he has been involved in two other productions of the play. In 1990 he starred in the revival at the National Theatre in London directed by Mathias, and also made a supporting appearance in the movie version, also directed by Mathias, which was released in 1997.

McKellen's talents won him successively more important and visible parts, until eventually in 1980 he won the role of Salieri in the Broadway production of Amadeus. He was awarded the Tony Award for his performance, the most prestigious award given to actors in live theater in the United States. His appearance as Walter, a mentally-retarded adult, in a 1982 television play, won him a new following; but he was still a relative unknown to much of the U.S. public.

Sir Ian McKellen played the wizard in , for which he earned an nomination.
Sir Ian McKellen played the wizard Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring, for which he earned an Academy Award nomination.

In the 1990s, McKellen began to branch into major American film and television roles. In 1993, McKellen had a supporting role as a South African tycoon in the sleeper hit Six Degrees of Separation, in which he starred with Stockard Channing, Donald Sutherland, and Will Smith. In the same year, he was also exposed to North American audiences in minor roles in the television miniseries Tales of the City (based on the novel by his friend Armistead Maupin) and the movie Last Action Hero. In 1995, he played the title role in Richard III. The performance was critically acclaimed, and he was nominated for Golden Globe and BAFTA awards, and won the European Film Award for best actor.

His breakthrough role for mainstream American audiences came with the modestly-acclaimed Apt Pupil, based on a story by Stephen King. McKellen portrayed an old Nazi officer, living under a false name in the U.S., who was befriended by a curious teenager (Brad Renfro) who threatened to expose him unless he told his story in detail.

He was appointed CBE in 1979 and knighted in 1990 for his outstanding work and contributions to the theatre, becoming Sir Ian McKellen.

In 1994 McKellen put together a one man show, A Knight Out . The show was very successful and he still performs it today. He considers it a perpetual "work in progress".

He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the 1998 film Gods and Monsters, where he played James Whale, gay director of Show Boat (1936) and Frankenstein.

More recently, McKellen has become a major global star by playing leading roles in blockbuster films. First he played Magneto in X-Men and its sequel X2. He followed that performance with the role of Gandalf in the three films that comprise the screen adaptation of The Lord of the Rings (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). For The Fellowship of the Ring he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Critics were surprised in 2005 when he did not win the Canadian Genie Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in the film Emile (2003) which some consider McKellen's best performance to date.

Work for gay rights

While McKellen was always out to his co-actors, his public persona was another matter. It was not until 1988 that he came out in a really public way. In that year, a controversial law was under consideration in the United Kingdom called Section 28 which proposed to ban any discussion of homosexuality in U.K. schools. McKellen became active in fighting the proposed law, and declared himself gay during a debate that aired on the BBC. "My own participating in that campaign was a focus for people [to] take comfort that if Ian McKellen was on board for this, perhaps it would be all right for other people to be as well, gay and straight," he said. Section 28 was, however, enacted and remained on the statute books until 2003. McKellen continued to fight for its repeal and criticised British Prime Minister Tony Blair for failing to concern himself with the issue.

By the time he came out, McKellen's ten-year relationship with Mathias had also ended. He has stated that being free of the additional concern of what effect his coming out would have on his partner's career made the choice easier, as did the advice and support of his friends, among them noted gay author Armistead Maupin.

In 1994, he made a bit of a splash at the closing ceremony of the Gay Games, where he stood before a crowd of gay athletes and their supporters and fans to say, "I'm Sir Ian McKellen, but you can call me Serena." (This nickname had been circulating within the gay community since McKellen's knighthood was conferred)

McKellen has continued up to the present to be very active in gay rights efforts. He is a co-founder of Stonewall, a gay rights lobby group in the United Kingdom. The group is named after the Stonewall riots.

Selected stage and screen credits





Quotes used in this article are from an interview conducted by The Advocate, December 11, 2001.

External links

Last updated: 05-07-2005 17:47:45
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04