Ian McKellen was born in 1939 to unorthodox Christian parents. As a baby he slept beneath an iron table, which it was hoped would save him in the event of a German bomb hitting the family’s home. He was interested in theater from a young age, and was keenly involved in school plays. While at Cambridge University, he worked with future theatrical giants Trevor Nunn and Derek Jacobi.
McKellen’s career followed the traditional path for British actors. He started out in provincial repertory theaters, before moving to London’s West End and finally the publically funded theater companies, first the National Theatre under Laurence Olivier, and then the Royal Shakespeare Company. By 1970, he was being hailed as a ‘new Olivier’ (it was traditional at the time for all promising young Shakespearean actors to be so described). He was notably successful in several Shakespearean lead roles, including Romeo, Coriolanus and Macbeth, and won acclaim for a variety of other plays.
His ‘Richard III’ for the National Theatre, which updated the play to a 1930s fascist setting, was later filmed. Possibly his finest role was a chilling performance as Iago in ‘Othello’ (1990). Although McKellen has come to focus more on films in recent years, he remains committed to the theatre. Recent triumphs have included playing Widow Twanky in ‘Aladdin’ in London, and the title role in ‘King Lear’ for the RSC. Like Kenneth Branagh and Michael Gambon, McKellen is far more compelling on stage than on screen, and it is to be hoped that he still has many more performances in him.
McKellen focused his attention largely on stage work until the 1990s. Prior to that, he had a notable success on UK TV with ‘Walter’ (1982), a traumatic film about a man with learning disabilities. A sequel followed in 1986. In 1989 he played the role of politician John Profumo in ‘Scandal’.
Subsequently, McKellen became rather more committed to film. He had a great critical success in the film version of his ‘Richard III’ (1995), one of the most entertaining Shakespeare films of all time. He played Tsar Nicholas II in ‘Rasputin’ (1996) and film director James Whale in the acclaimed ‘Gods and Monsters’ (1998). He was also a success in ‘Apt Pupil’ (1998), a Stephen King adaptation in which he played an ageing war criminal.
That film’s director, Bryan Singer, then cast McKellen as the arch villain Magneto in ‘X-Men’ (2000), a role he reprised in its two sequels (2003, 2006). McKellen’s knowing, ever-so-slightly camp performance was not quite how the character came across in the comics, but was a lot of fun.
He followed this with his most famous role: Gandalf the wizard in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy (2001-3). McKellen added some much-needed humanity to a series that was often in danger of being consumed by its own special effects and landscape shots; he will reprise the role in ‘The Hobbit’. He also appeared in a very different kind of blockbuster, playing Sir Leigh Teabing in ‘The Da Vinci Code’ (2006) opposite Tom Hanks.
In 2005 McKellen fulfilled a long-standing ambition, appearing in Britain’s longest running soap opera, ‘Coronation Street’, as a ‘dodgy novelist’.
Gay rights campaigner
McKellen caused a stir when he outed himself as gay on BBC radio in 1988. At the time, the Government was enacting a repressive piece of legislation known as ‘Section 28’, which would make it illegal for schools to teach children that homosexuality was acceptable. Although the campaign to prevent the law failed, it was never really enforced, and was repealed across the UK in 2003.
Following this, McKellen became an enthusiastic and very vocal gay rights activist, and was a founder member of Stonewall, a UK gay rights lobby group. He has campaigned around the world for gay rights, and continues to speak out on the issue.
McKellen had a long-term relationship with a teacher, Brian Taylor, from 1964 to 1972. He subsequently had a relationship with actor and director Sean Mathias, and the two continue to work together even though they are no longer partners.
McKellen was awarded the CBE in 1979 and knighted in 1991 for his services to drama. He was criticized by gay film director Derek Jarman for accepting a knighthood from the homophobic government of Margaret Thatcher. McKellen argued that the honor increased his public profile, and he won the support of other high-profile gay and lesbian members of the British entertainment industry. In 2008 he was made a Companion of Honour for services to theatre and equality.