Sir Ian McKellen - Actor Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Sir Ian McKellen - Actor

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Sir Ian McKellen.

Ian Murray McKellen was born on 25 May, 1939 in Burnley General Hospital. He was the second child of Denis Murray McKellen and his wife Margery, and a little brother to five-year-old Jean. His father was a civil engineer, while his mother was a typical housewife of her time, looking after the home and her children.

When Ian was just a few weeks old, the family moved to Wigan, a town whose economy was based on its coalmining industry. Although they weren't rich, Ian's parents were certainly 'comfortably off' during this depressive time in history, being able to afford a four bedroom semi-detached house in Mesnes Park.

His Early Life

The Second World War was declared soon after the family moved to Wigan. So, for the first few years of his life, Ian slept under the iron table in the dining room, which was thought to be bomb-proof. Though the Germans did extensive damage as they bombed the industrial areas of the north of England, this was one danger that Ian and his family missed completely. However, disease was rampant in those times and at the age of three, Ian contracted diphtheria, a serious infection which makes it almost impossible to breathe as the throat swells. Luckier than some, Ian survived.

Around the same time, Ian gained a fascination with theatre when he was taken to see Peter Pan during a family outing. At the age of seven, his main Christmas present was a Victorian theatre, made of wood and Bakelite, with cardboard scenery cut-outs of Cinderella and Olivier's Hamlet. He remembers spending hours playing with the cut-out figures and providing all the voices for Hamlet. His parents encouraged his artistic inclinations by taking the family to regular cinema and theatre outings. He saw his first Shakespeare play when his sister took him to see Twelfth Night, as performed by the amateurs of Wigan's Little Theatre.

Yet, it has been said that Ian's main influence for the stage came from watching the peddlers selling their wares at the Saturday market in Wigan. They sold everything from cure-all snake oils from darkest Africa, charms and even the latest gadgets from that far away place, London. Ian was able to observe these pleasant con-artists as they performed their acts before the public. Somewhere in the middle of Wigan's Saturday market, the spark began to light in the young McKellen.

When he was 11 years old, the McKellen family moved to Bolton, where Denis McKellen became the Borough Engineer and Surveyor. Now Ian could get even closer to theatre life, as his father knew the owner of Bolton's Grand Theatre and Ian was able to hang around backstage, watch everything from tap-dancers to bad comics - and he loved it. Ian's mother died when he was 12. It is likely that the theatre would have been his comfort at that time.

Ian acted at all the schools he attended. When at Bolton School he was able to take on his first Shakespeare performance at Hopefield Miniature Theatre when, as a 13-year-old Malvolio, he performed the letter scene from Twelfth Night. His confidence grew and his Classics master stated that he had 'grease paint flowing in his veins'.

During a school camp to Stratford-upon-Avon, he watched Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Charles Laughton, Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud and Paul Robeson give festival performances at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Spending the evenings sitting round the camp-stove, Ian and his friends discussed the performances and he learned to express why, in his opinion, some of the productions were not very good.

The Marlowe Society

Finally becoming Head Boy of Bolton School, the scholar and young actor in the making won a scholarship to St Catherine's College, Cambridge. Quickly, he was drawn into acting in the Marlowe Society, where he met Derek Jacobi and David Frost. Ian threw himself into his performances; unfortunately, he allowed his academic work to slip. Ian wasn't worried about this as he already knew that all he wanted was to become a successful actor. During the 1960 - 61 academic year, Ian was President of the Marlowe Society.

Ian graduated from Cambridge with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature in 1961, and without having gone to drama school, made his first performance as Roper in the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry's production of A Man for All Seasons. This was his apprenticeship, but all did not go well on his debut performance on 4 September, 1961, as Ian missed his second entrance completely while performing in front of his father and his stepmother, Gladys, who had travelled especially to see the performance. He never forgot that mistake and was soon performing a different play every two weeks for a year. He even performed in Toad of Toad Hall and Agatha Christie's Then There Were None.

In 1962, Ian moved from Coventry to Ipswich, working with the Arts Theatre Company for a year. He appeared in Beckett and David Copperfield and starred in Henry V and Martin Luther. Still he yearned for more training and so, in December 1963, he moved to the Nottingham Playhouse. This was to be a very important time for him. In the production of Coriolanus, he was taught how to play the audience. The director Tyrone Guthrie was the person credited with having the patience to show Ian how to deal in magic - the art of making the audience believe they were seeing something extraordinary.

National Theatre

Ian was now being noticed by the press for his performances in Nottingham, and at that time director Michael Codron was looking for an actor to play the lead in A Scent of Flowers by James Saunders, to be performed in London. Ian was recommended and employed without even having an audition for the part. He moved to London, taking a residence in Kensington, where he lived with two Scottish terriers and his lover Brian Taylor. With Ian's experience in repertory1, he performed well and was acclaimed for his work in the play. Even better, actress Maggie Smith was in the audience one night. She recommended Ian to Laurence Olivier, who was then building his National Theatre at the Old Vic. Two other new recruits joined on the same day as Ian, these being Michael York and Ronald Pickup. In 1965, Ian's second London production was Much Ado About Nothing, with performers Maggie Smith, Albert Finney, Michael York and Ian's old friend Derek Jacobi.

Ian then went on to further success, with one play, The Promise, being particularly successful. So, in 1966, he and Judi Dench, among others, took The Promise to the Henry Miller Theatre on Broadway. Unfortunately, the political climate that existed due to the Cold War didn't bode well for the modern Russian play. Also, US actors led by Roy Scheider picketed the theatre, claiming the Brits were stealing work from American actors. Even so, Ian enjoyed his time in America, especially Joel Gray's performance in Cabaret, which he thought was breathtaking.

Once home, Ian again returned to repertory and began touring the country - he even tried his hand at directing the occasional play. Then, at the Edinburgh Festival in 1969, he performed both Richard II and Edward II. The critics and audience loved him and he was proclaimed as the 'new Olivier'. On returning to London, he found himself in a surreal moment of introducing Noel Coward to Rudolf Nureyev as they both arrived to visit Ian in his dressing room. Ian McKellen had 'arrived.'

Other Work

Ian's theatrical career had gone from strength to strength, but during the same period his film career was far slower in taking off. In 1966 he played a soldier in a war movie, which had the misfortune to be called The Bells Of Hell Go Ting-A-Ling-A-Ling, but the film was never completed, even though it had Gregory Peck as the star. Ian was then turned down for parts in Barbarella and, of all things, a spaghetti western. Next came the film Alfred The Great, in which David Hemmings played Alfred and that young whipper-snapper from the National Theatre, Michael York played Guthrum, King of the Danes. Ian McKellen was...Roger, the bandit.

Film fame would come eventually, and Ian continued with his theatrical career while filming a few television plays. However, he was always a man of the people, never forgetting his humble northern background. He began to dream of a way to take the theatre to the people. After discussions with friends and fellow actors, who then approached their friends, a troupe was created which would choose its own plays and cast lists in a democratic fashion. In 1972 the Actors' Company was formed. Ian's dream had come true, but at a cost, as his relationship with Brian Taylor ended. For the next eight years Ian would live alone.

Royal Shakespeare Company

Ready for a new challenge, Trevor Nunn persuaded Ian to join the Royal Shakespeare Company. He enjoyed playing Dr Faustus and later, Romeo, opposite Francesca Annis's Juliet. Then came Macbeth in 1976, with Judi Dench as his Lady Macbeth, which was considered by the critics to be the best since Olivier. Ian didn't need the personal glory, as again he was planning something different. In 1978 he had organised a small RSC unit to take Three Sisters and Twelfth Night round 26 towns in Britain. He was to perform a similar achievement in the USA, which he thoroughly enjoyed. In 1979 he was honoured to be made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE).

In the 1980s Ian McKellen CBE made his debut in a starring role on screen with Priest Of Love, in which Ian played the author DH Lawrence during the period when Lawrence was sick with tuberculosis; that is, the period of the banning of The Rainbow and the writing of Lady Chatterley's Lover2. His next part was in Walter, where Ian put in an extremely moving portrayal of a mentally-retarded man struggling under the compassionless regime of Margaret Thatcher.

Broadway beckoned once more, and this time they received a better reception. Ian played Salieri in Amadeus, for which he received a Tony award. After Amadeus, Ian returned to the National Theatre, now on London's South Bank. He won the Olivier Award for Actor Of The Year in Wild Honey. Later, with the proceeds of his year on Broadway, Ian bought a riverside terraced house in Limehouse, within sight of both Canary Wharf and Tower Bridge.

From 1986, Ian spent two years touring the world on his own, taking the theatre to the people once again, though this time in his one-man show Acting Shakespeare. He returned to the National Theatre in 1988 as a producer, where he put on Deborah Warner's King Lear, which was cross-cast with Richard III. The two plays then went on a world tour, with Ian receiving another Olivier award for his Richard in 1991. His version of Richard III, set in a future fascist England, would eventually reach the cinema screens.


It wasn't until a 1988 BBC Radio 4 discussion about the Thatcher government's Local Government Act, Section 28 of which made the public 'promotion of homosexuality' illegal, that Ian publicly announced he was gay. Prior to this, he had been openly gay with friends and at work but kept his sexuality to himself when it came to his family or the media. Regarding his parents Ian said:

Neither [...] showed much interest in my sexuality, whatever it might have been. Probably because for most people in England, sex is a tricky topic.

Besides, what difference would it have made on stage? He became, overnight, an active member of the movement to change those UK laws which discriminated against lesbians and gays. Recording an edition of 'Third Ear' for BBC Radio 3 in January 1988, he 'outed' himself as gay. He decided it was time to tell his family about his sexuality before the recorded programme was transmitted.

In 1989 he co-founded 'Stonewall', a gay rights lobby group, and he is still active in this organisation which works for social and legal equality.

Ian went on to create the role of Max in Bent, a play about the suffering of homosexuals in Dachau. Later, a film was made with Clive Owen playing Max, Ian playing Uncle Freddie and Mick Jagger appearing in drag.

From Profumo to Hitler

After 'coming out', his first role was a starring one in Scandal, in which he played John Profumo. He wanted to prove a point by playing someone known to be so infamously heterosexual. Next, he played Adolf Hitler3, in the film Countdown To War.

In 1990, Ian received a Knighthood of the British Empire for services to the performing arts, from her Majesty the Queen. He is one of only a few openly-gay knights.

He was nominated for an Oscar for his role as James Whale4 in the film Gods and Monsters. It was performed in a witty and bright manner but sadly, Ian didn't receive an Oscar. This left him disappointed as he had planned to make a speech about the film industry's attitude towards gays at that time. Ian's film career began to blossom, yet he still remained loyal to his beloved theatre. He came back to the UK to join an ensemble at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, spending the season playing in The Seagull, The Tempest and Present Laughter.

Noted Roles

Returning to Hollywood, Ian starred as a Nazi hiding in the USA in Stephen King's Apt Pupil. From there, he went on to appear in the first of the blockbuster trilogy X-Men, followed by the sequels X-Men 2 and X-Men: The Last Stand.

Gandalf and the Lord Of The Rings trilogy were to take up three years of Ian's time as Peter Jackson filmed continuously, starting with The Fellowship Of The Ring, for which he had been Oscar nominated5, then following through immediately with The Two Towers and The Return Of The King.

Ian was now famous around the world, yet intermittently he still returned to his beloved stage and in 2002 he performed A Knight Out in Vancouver, Canada. The following year he returned to London, performing in Dance Of Death. He later rejoined the production in Sydney in 2004.

Christmas, 2004 would surprise many serious theatre-goers. Sir Ian played none other than Widow Twankey in the Old Vic's version of Aladdin and enjoyed it so much, he repeated the experience the following Christmas!

In 2005, Judi Dench would be reunited with Ian to provide voices for the film version of The Magic Roundabout. Next, another of his ambitions was achieved as Ian got a small part in Granada's Coronation Street playing Mel Hutchwright, a writer claiming to suffer from writer's block who managed to con his way into free accommodation and drinks in The Rovers Return. Actually, Ian should have appeared some years earlier, as the long-lost nephew of Elsie Tanner, only he got cold feet about appearing in such a prestigious British institution as The Street.

Other Awards and Recognition

As well as his many awards for acting on stage and screen, Sir Ian has honours from Nottingham, Leeds, Oxford, Lancaster and Aberdeen Universities and from gay organisations in UK, USA and South Africa. He is also patron of the St Paul's Arts Centre on the Isle of Dogs.

Finally, Sir Ian 'call me Serena6' McKellen was instrumental in organising the march for Euro Gay Pride in London on 1 July, 2006. He also came top of the 'Pink List' of Britain's most influential homosexuals, with the voting marking the end of the peaceful rally, which was to highlight the changes that are still required around the world for Gays and Lesbians.

1A type of theatre company which has a steady cast of actors but regularly changes play.2Also banned until the 1960s3 Whose 'Final Solution' mercilessly persecuted homosexuals as well as Jews, Gypsies, the mentally infirm and other minority groups.4Director of the horror film Frankenstein.5The Oscar was eventually awarded to Jim Broadbent in Moulin Rouge6A nickname he is called, in jest, by those in theatrical circles.

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