Part 2 may be found here. Part 3 may be found here.
Months ago, when it was confirmed that Ian McKellen was going to reprise his role as Gandalf in The Hobbit, I felt exhilarated and reassured. Of all the actors from the trilogy who could reasonably be asked to return for the new films, Ian McKellen was the person I thought most crucial. As much as I cherish his portrayal in the trilogy, I didn’t expect Ian Holm to return as Bilbo. Even when he made LotR, Ian Holm was far too old to play fifty year-old Bilbo (which would be comparable to a human in his early thirties). As for the other LotR characters that could feasibly be in the new films, I would love to see them play their roles again. But Time does not stand still for Men and Hobbits, nor even Elves, much less the actors who play them. I would love to see Viggo Mortensen play Aragorn again, for instance, but I will not be surprised if he is replaced. Viggo Mortensen is still in his prime, strong and fit. And he’s a better actor than ever. But he does look older. Aragorn in the upcoming films (particularly if they depict the beginning of his relationship with Arwen) must look younger, not older.
But Ian McKellen is not too old to play Gandalf. He was only sixty when he arrived in New Zealand to begin principle photography. He was seventeen years younger than Christopher Lee and eight years younger than Ian Holm, and they did wonderful jobs.
I can personally testify that Ian McKellen is quite fit to play Gandalf. Last fall, visiting jan-u-wine in LA, we went to see him in the RSC’s touring production of King Lear. Lear is an extremely taxing stage role, but Sir was more than up to it. He gave a performance that was compelling, intense, charismatic, and often marked by brilliant turns. Also, in one scene he appeared nude. Costuming, lighting and make-up can disguise age, as can gels over a camera lens and digital enhancements. But nudity on a well-lit stage is literally revealing. He does not look remotely decrepit.
As can be seen from the pic spam that follows, Sir Ian has had an attractive but craggy, lived-in sort of face from a relatively young age. When I look at his smiling face, with all its creases and lines, I am reminded of an appealingly rumpled bed. It looks comfortable and inviting, with plenty of cozy nooks around the corners of his eyes and mouth to snuggle into. But if his face looks lined and worn, his body does not. He’s still tall and trim, his skin smooth, his posture erect. Except when he is affecting aged infirmity, he still moves with ease and grace. No, he will be able to play Gandalf for years to come.
So, out of admiration of Sir Ian as an actor, affection for him as a person, and in celebration of his return as Gandalf the Grey, I wanted to do a special post. To prepare, I watched many of his films, though not all, and I've wandered through his cave of a website. It is full of unexpected treasures. And I still haven't been through half of it.
This post is made of images and snippets that are mostly taken from his site. When I've quoted from another source I've said so. For those of you who don't have the hours necessary to really explore his site, this post might serve as sampler. To visit Sir Ian’s website yourself, go here.
I will say up front that only a small percentage of the pictures that follow show Sir Ian in his film roles. I wanted the pictures to show him through the course of his life and career. Sir Ian didn't really make many films until he was in his forties. But he was continually acting on stage from the time he was a young teenager. Therefore far more of the images come from plays. There are candid shots and publicity stills, too. I also included very few pictures of him working on LotR. I am assuming most readers here are more than familiar with the plethora of images available of Sir Ian as Gandalf.
Most of the biographical material that follows comes from Sir Ian's "life of" page.
Ian Murray McKellen was born May 25, 1939, on the eve of WWII, the younger of two children. His sister Jean was five years older. His father was a civil engineer and had just moved the family to Wigan in south Lancashire, a coal-mining town, before the war began. Like near-contemporaries John Lennon and Ringo Starr (both born in 1940), Ian grew up in an England at war. In his first years, he slept under “the iron bomb-proof table in the dining-room", but he did not have to be evacuated like the London children in the Narnia stories. He walked to the local grammar school and was taken to church on Sundays, and generally did the things that normal children do.
1941 – Two-year old Ian held by his mother, Margery Lois Sutcliffe McKellen.
A photo from the early 1950’s of Sir Ian’s father, Dennis Murray McKellen.
Young Ian was taken to see Peter Pan when he was three, and at nine was given a Pollock’s Victorian toy theatre. He was taken to local productions of Twelfth Night, MacBeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When he was twelve, the year after his mother died of breast cancer, his father was made Borough Engineer and Ian transferred from Wigan Grammar to Bolton School (Boy's Division).
How did the death of his mother and the ensuing changes affect him? Sir Ian, a font of professional anecdotes and eager at all times to talk about his work, rarely talks about his personal life except to close friends and associates. But John Lahr wrote about Sir Ian for the New Yorker. In this August 27, 2007 article Lahr wrote,
After his mother died of breast cancer when he was twelve, and his father remarried two years later, theatre became, for McKellen, an alternate family to his own problematic one. He never discussed his homosexuality at home.
1952 – Ian with classmates at Bolton’s school camp, Saundersfoot, in Temby, South Wales.
At Bolton, Ian began to act in plays. His first Shakespearean performance was at thirteen, in 1952, as Malvolio in Twelfth Night. In all, he was in over a dozen plays at Bolton, although he did not [yet] aspire to become a professional actor. On his way to being a scholar, in last year at Bolton he was Head Boy.
1952 – Bolton Twelfth Night actors (Ian is in the middle).
1952 – Bolton program for Twelfth Night, Ian as Malvolio on the cover. At thirteen, he already has recognizable hands.
Each summer, Sir Ian went on Bolton’s camp trips to Stratford-upon-Avon, where he saw Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Charles Laughton, Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud and Paul Robeson. (Not every production was good, he remembers.)
In 1956, at seventeen, he got to play Prince Hal in Henry IV, Pt. 2. Sir Ian remembers,
It was thrilling to discover as a teenager what is now, perhaps, my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays. The range of the people and their language is wide, as if an entire nation inhabits the stage. Acting Prince Hal, I learnt a bit about breath control and how to keep woollen leggings tight, with the aid of a large copper penny twisted into the waistband. Frank Greene, the senior English master, chose the School Play and directed it over a couple of months of post-school rehearsals. He was a stickler for enunciation - ‘It’s soldyar not sodger, McKellen’ - and curbed a little our Lancashire accent of broad vowels and dropped aitches. He usefully corrected my habit of standing with one foot resting on the side rather than the instep.
“Characterisation,” he adds wryly, “was not much delved into.”
1956 – Sir Ian as Prince Hal in Henry IV, Pt. 2, at Bolton:
1957 – At Bolton as Hal in Henry V:
In 1958 Sir Ian went to university. He won an exhibition to read English at St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge, under the tutorship of Tom Henn, the Shakespeare and Yeats scholar.
1961 – Ian clowning for the camera during his last year at Cambridge. He was twenty-two.
He writes of his experience at Cambridge,
There is to this day still no drama department at Cambridge University. Had there been when I arrived at St. Catharine’s in 1958, it’s doubtful I would have applied, as I then had no intention of acting professionally and was happy to be reading English Literature. This involved University lectures from such academic stars as C.S. Lewis (the “Narnia” books) and F.R. Leavis (“Scrutiny” and other critical studies).
I sat at Leavis's feet in his small study group at Downing College — alongside Trevor Nunn — but presented my weekly essay to the patrician attention of T. R. Henn, whom Leavis defamed as “the red-faced brigadier of King’s Parade”. Leavis was scathing about actors’ interpretations of Shakespeare, preferring to read the plays rather than see them staged.
Tom Henn, indeed an ex-brigadier, loved Yeats and Shakespeare (same here), though he warned me not to let undergraduate theatre take me too much from my studies. With a rebellion that was out of character, I ignored him and managed 21 productions in Cambridge 1958-61. A couple of these transferred briefly to London and most were reviewed by national critics, often themselves Oxbridge graduates. Agents scouted Cambridge, and Peter Cook even had two revues running in the West End. The BBC held an annual party to encourage us to work in their news and drama departments. Were we privileged!
1959 – Sir Ian with Margaret Drabble in Deutsches Haus at Cambridge. He turned twenty during the run of the play.
In 1959, John Barton, one of the most respected directors at Cambridge, mounted a production of Henry IV, Pt. 2. Barton had seen Ian’s “old man audition” for the ADC (Amateur Dramatic Club) and cast him as the aged Justice Shallow for his production at the preeminent Cambridge drama club, the Marlowe Society. Under Barton, McKellen learned a lot and turned in a performance that received significant notice. What he and reviewers say about his portrayal as Shallow makes me think he was meant to be “my” Gandalf, even then, at twenty years of age. McKellen recalls,
John [Barton] encouraged me to discover a vocal range I’d not tried for before, mainly by mimicking him. In one scene Shallow enters saying to his visitor Falstaff: “Nay, you shall see mine orchard where in an arbour we shall eat a pippin of last year’s grafting…” This I had to try for a score of times, until Barton was satisfied that my words set the scene and conjured up the Gloucestershire countryside.
The comedy of Shallow’s exchange with his cousin Silence (Michael Burrell intended to act professionally) took care of itself but Barton also wanted it under-pinned by a nostalgic melancholy, in which Shakespeare, he pointed out, had anticipated Chekov. (…) Professionalism was in the air and when I read the review in the News Chronicle, I believed it, and decided to become an actor after Cambridge. I asked Barton if I’d made the right decision. He didn’t discourage me.
The Marlowe Society traditionally presented its plays with an anonymous cast, but that didn’t prevent critics from singling him out. When Alan Dent wrote his review for the News Chronicle, his headline was….
"Here's a brilliant Justice — but who is he?" [Continuing…] "Infinitely the best performance, though, is that of Justice Shallow who is genuinely ancient, wheezy, full of sudden changes and chortles and sadnesses. This Shallow's sighs are half-chuckles and his giggles are melancholy. The young actor (…) plays the mad old gentleman quite brilliantly (…).”
I couldn’t find a memorable photo of Sir Ian as Shallow, but here is a shot of him the next year as Hjalmar Ekdal in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck. With him is young Corin Redgrave. He was at Cambridge at the same time, as was Trevor Nunn. Ian appeared in nearly two dozen plays during his three years at university.
1960 – Ian the undergraduate in The Wild Duck at Cambridge, with Corin Redgrave.
By the time he graduated in 1961 (Bachelor of Arts), Sir Ian had decided to become an actor ("I wasn't fit for anything else!"). Without going to drama school, he went straight into regional rep. In the Belgrade Theatre (in Coventry), he made his first performance as Roper in A Man for All Seasons. He was at the Belgrade from 1961 – 1962. Working in repertory was the perfect job for a beginner who hadn’t been to drama school, he said – “joining a company of actors who would work on a different play every two weeks throughout the year.” He was in seventeen productions. From 1962 to 1963, he worked at the Arts Theatre Company in Ipswich, performing in twenty-two productions.
At the end of 1963, the year his father died in a car accident, he went to the Nottingham Playhouse and played the role that effectively launched his career. He was twenty-four.
Coriolanus, directed in 1963 by the renowned Tyrone Guthrie, “the leading director of Shakespeare worldwide”, was heaped with ecstatic praise, and it brought Ian McKellen to wider notice. He didn’t play the lead, but a supporting role, Tullus Aufidius. In this production the play revolved around the love/hate relationship between the Roman commander Caius Martius (Coriolanus) and his enemy on the battlefield, Tullus Aufidius. Sir Ian says that Guthrie, recognizing his nervousness and inexperience, offered to rehearse his solo speeches privately. “Then when we’ve got them right, we can surprise the rest of the cast.”
They must have been impressed by the results; the critics were. Emrys Bryson (The Evening Post) wrote, “Ian McKellen gives a depth to the Voscian commander, Aufidius, that is twitching in intensity”. The Times reviewer wrote, “Equally responsible for the impact of this and similar scenes is the Aufidius of Ian McKellen, a new actor with a prodigious range of hysterical passion which here rises to its climax in a long wailing phrenody over the hero’s body.”
Michael Billington, in an article about Sir Ian from the Telegraph Sunday Magazine, Feb. 14, 1982, The Gentle Giant of the English Theatre: Bringing Magic to The Stage, was similarly struck by McKellen’s performance. He wrote, “even the young McKellen had the throat-grabbing quality of the spellbinder. Playing Aufidius to John Neville's Coriolanus in the opening production at the new Nottingham Playhouse in 1963, he leapt upon the body of the dead hero with a swooping cry of guilt and love.”
Mckellen told Billington,
Tyrone Guthrie, the director, had to drag that out of me. I can see him now at the dress rehearsal bouncing down the stalls stairs, clapping his hands and saying "If you're not going to do this properly and persuade the audience these people are superhuman, then we've been wasting our time. We're not going to think you're silly. You're looking more silly not doing it.
Sir Ian did a half dozen more plays with the Nottingham Playhouse. In the fall of 1964 he went to London. He wrote of his early London years,
London theatre is a small world and without a break other work followed, beginning with Laurence Olivier's new National Theatre Company at the Old Vic Theatre and followed by some showy parts in plays old and new. Four years after Nottingham, my name had been in lights on Shaftesbury Avenue and I had made an inglorious Broadway debut (The Promise, 1967).
Below are pictures of Sir Ian in various productions, mostly plays, from 1965 to 1972. Some are production photos, some are publicity stills.
1965 – from Franco Zeffirelli’s Much Ado About Nothing. Sir Ian played Claudio (right); Albert Finney was Don Pedro, Robert Stephens was Benedick.
1966 – David Copperfield (as David), a television mini-series. Also shown are George Benson, Clive Frances, Flora Robson, and Hannah Gordon.
1967 – The Promise, original London cast, with Ian McShane and Judi Dench.
1967 – The Promise, with Judi Dench.
1967 – The Promise, with Judi Dench.
1967 – The Promise, Broadway cast, with Ian McShane, Eileen Atkins replacing Judi Dench (who didn’t want to come to NY), and Frank Hauser, director.
1967 – The Promise, with McShane and Atkins (publicity shot). The show, which had been a hit in London, failed in New York.
A film rather than a stage play, Alfred the Great starred David Hemmings, Michael York and Colin Blakey. Sir Ian was given a small part. It was filmed during the summer in County Galway, Ireland. Although it was not a success, Sir Ian seemed to have enjoyed the experience.
"I was a bandit fighting with Alfred against the Viking invasion. My mate was played by Vivien Merchant, Mrs Harold Pinter. Harold came out with us to Galway in Western Ireland and the night before, he read the script. Over breakfast next day, he told Vivien that she was not to speak any of the unspeakable lines in the script, so the director agreed that her part would be mute. This meant that Vivien got lots of BIG close-ups and that I was landed with all her lines."
1968 – Ian, off-set with Vivien Merchant. Ian played 'Roger the Bandit'. The name makes me laugh, reminding me of Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (‘Bring forth Roger!’).
1968 – Alfred the Great: Vivien Merchant, Ian McKellen and Henry Woolf.
1968 – Here is Roger the Bandit paddling his coracle, looking very LOTR-ish. He could have been playing Déagol.
1968 – The White Liars, with Dorothy Reynolds. This is a play by Peter Shaffer, but I’ve no clue as to what it’s about. It was a comedy, judging from the reviews, and Sir Ian was thought very funny.
1968 – The White Liars, with Dorothy Reynolds.
The next role Ian McKellen acted that was singled out for career-making praise was his performance in the title role of Richard II. The play, which was produced on a shoe string at the Prospect Theatre Company, opened in 1968 and was an artistic triumph. Sir Ian was twenty-nine.
Performances like this and ones to come established him as a premiere actor of Shakespeare. Here are some excerpts from reviews.
From Harold Hobson’s review in the August 31, 1969 Sunday Times:
A KING ACCLAIMED: THE UNCONTESTED TRIUMPH of the Edinburgh Festival so far has been that of Ian McKellen and the Prospect Theatre Company in their production in the Assembly Hall of Richard II, directed by Richard Cottrell. Cambridge and Guildford already know the splendour of Mr McKellen's deified performance (…).
The ineffable presence of God Himself enters into Mr McKellen's Richard. As the Deity takes possession his eyes glaze, the real world vanishes from before him, and the king's petulant tones strengthen into the commanding grandeur of a ritual omnipotence. His hands are raised in a universal benediction, and he spreads around him an atmosphere of celestial remoteness. This grandiose notion of his unique and heavenly magnificence is shattered in an electric cry when he suddenly realises that he, like ordinary men, "needs friends." At this point Mr McKellen almost screams; there is in his voice both rage and anguish, and a huge, disillusioned astonishment as well.
Mr McKellen's sensational performance is brilliantly contrasted with Timothy West's prosaic Bolingbroke. This Bolingbroke regards Richard's histrionics with a cold disapproval; he is like a rationalist frowning at the excesses of a particularly gorgeous High Mass. (…)
1969 – Richard II, hands raised in benediction-like greeting.
1969 – Richard II, long shot.
His performance in the title role of Marlowe’s Edward II with the Prospect Theatre Company was another tremendous critical success.
1969 – Edward II (title role).
1969 – Edward II.
1969 – Edward II: Sir Ian supported by Robert Eddison.
Below is an interesting quote from an article about Ian McKellen, touching upon his approach to acting at that time. Written by Catherine Stott, the article From Cambridge to London appeared in The Guardian:
On the subject of great acting Ian McKellen feels that there is a great division in performers between the personality people who have charm and sell themselves and the people who really know their job backwards-"and that's the sort of acting I really admire. When the two things are brought together like in Judi Dench's work, then that is great acting." If people think he is, as they do, a potentially great actor then he regards this somewhat sceptically as "very nice." But he says of himself: "I know I am getting more and more accomplished as an actor, more capable of letting my voice and my body do what I want. This is what I have done increasingly since Cambridge, where I was a very technical actor indeed and always tended to portray the character rather than feel it and bring it through myself. Now I can do this along with the technique." Which was his modest response to being asked whether or not he felt his description of great acting was within his grasp. He ends up simply on the subject of himself with a shy smile and "I find it very satisfying to act good parts well. That's all there is to it really."
Here’s a photo from a role he played not on stage but in a television drama, based on the life of T. E. Lawrence. I wish it was available somewhere. The notices were very good.
1970 – as T. E. Lawrence in Ross, for British TV.
Not everything Ian McKellen did was a hit artistically. I chuckle when I read him reporting of his 1971 performance in Hamlet, "I'm always doubtful when an actor is dubbed 'The Hamlet of his generation', particularly as no-one ever wrote it about mine!” On the whole, theatre critics had reservations about this Hamlet, some disliking it very much. It was a box office success, however. This is from Peter Waymaric’s review that appeared in The Times, March 29, 1971:
On the first night of Hamlet at the Nottingham Playhouse last week, Robert Chetwyn, the director, went into the lavatory and heard his production being dismissed as "damned teenage twaddle". Ian McKellen, who is 30 and plays Hamlet, was pleased to be thought of as a teenager.
Hamlet is Mr. McKellen's biggest challenge since his Edward II and Richard II sent the press into raptures two years ago, putting him with the great Shakespearian actors and giving him labels such as "The new Olivier from Wigan" (where Mr. McKellen was brought up). He says that the praise was overdone and he is waiting for the reaction: "They are going to say: ‘We knew it could not last. We knew it was a trick'."
Mr. McKellen says he thinks the Hamlet is the best thing he has done and whatever the critics say it is the audience that matters. On the evidence of advance bookings enthusiasm is building up nicely. Every performance at Nottingham was sold out in January and people have been writing to Mr McKellen from other towns where the production is playing, begging for tickets. (…) There is (…) a genuine appreciation of provincial audiences, as shown in the case of two middle-aged ladies who went up to Mr. McKellen at Nottingham to say how much they had enjoyed the play.
"They had never seen Shakespeare in the theatre and they came because they had seen Richard II on 'the box' [it had been filmed for televising].
"I asked whether they understood the story all right. One of them said she bought the book and could not make anything of it. But having seen the play she understood it perfectly."
1971 – As Hamlet.
1971 – Hamlet, with director Michael Chetwyn.
1971 – Hamlet, offstage, Ian on his 32nd birthday, May 25.
Here’s a photo from a play I know little about, Ruling the Roost. I thought the picture was droll, though.
1972 – Working on Ruling the Roost (with the Actors Company).
In 1974, Sir Ian played Edgar in the Actors Company production of King Lear. Edgar is one of my favourite Shakespearean characters, and David Threlfall’s Edgar in the 1983 Olivier “Lear” remains one of my favourite Shakespearean performances (Threlfall played the wonderful Smike in RSC’s renowned “Nicholas Nickleby”, filmed and shown on television in 1983). But it sounds as though Ian acquitted himself brilliantly as Edgar in this production. He even managed to appear naked. A forerunner of his nude scene in Lear thirty-four years later? He later wrote of the scene in the program for Acting Shakespeare,
In preparing my disguise as Mad Tom, I flung off all my clothes and stood briefly onstage as the bare fork'd man. This was a simple image to counterpoint the impenetrable obscurity of Edgar's language - and didn't often get a snigger. Otherwise, nothing remarkable; although we went to USA."
Professional critics found the scene properly affecting. Micheal Coveney wrote,
"Ian McKellen is an inexpressive Edgar until he bursts upon the stage as Tom. Here is a creature brilliantly created by the avenging Edgar, a tousle-haired wood demon who has not stopped at anything to muster his effect: on leaving the court, Mr McKellen ceremoniously removes his clothes, improvising a loin-cloth and following with alarming accuracy the precedent of those Bedlam beggars. His left arm is bloodily savaged by a huge thorn, his movements studiously contorted, his mouth agape and his body grimed with mud and gore. This throbbing image of distraction and anquish is the strongest visual element in the production."
I wish I’d seen him in it for acting so well a role I love, and, yes, for the nude scene. At 68, playing King Lear in LA, Sir Ian was still quite a looker in the buff. He would have been *extra* dishy at 34. And I’ve always had a weakness for attractive actors when covered with mud and gore. The Actors Company brought Lear to New York where it was extremely well-received.
Later in 1974, Sir Ian debuted in the Royal Shakespeare Company in the title role in Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. His director was John Barton, the [ex] don who had directed him back at Cambridge.
1974 – Sir Ian as Dr. Faustus.
Another play Sir Ian did with the RSC was George Bernard Shaw’s Too True to Be Good. He was thrilled to work again with Judi Dench, an actor he calls “great”. Below is a description of an incident that seriously shook his faith in himself as an actor. I include it to show that even Sir Ian knows what it is to be undermined by negative feedback, although he says it only happened this once.
Sir Ian wrote,
The first act is set in a typical South London villa. The designer, who I suspected didn't read the play, provided us with an extravaganza of silver and black, more suited to an art deco villa on the Cote d'Azure. The second act was on a beach, with me in a one-piece bathing suit, as Judi lolled in a deckchair.
One night I couldn't get through our scene. The previous evening I was at a Soho restaurant after the show with a friend. At an adjacent table, two senior actors were drinking and dining and drinking some more. Douglas Campbell was railing to his companion William Squire against the appalling acting of Ian McKellen, whom he had just seen in "Too True to be Good". "Just a bloody show-off, Bill! All so-called technique! Voice going up and down the scale! What's it all coming to? I tell you, if Tony were alive today he'd turn in his grave!" This was a reference to the brilliant director Tyrone Guthrie whom Campbell and I shared and revered as a mentor. I chuckled, remembering the pompous Campbell when we shared a variety bill at the opening of the Crucible Theatre Sheffield a couple of years back and I thought nothing of it — until the following night during the second act. In the bathing costume which had always made me feel, shall we say, exposed, I recalled Campbell's tirade word for word and thought to myself, everyone out there in the dark agrees with him. I am a rubbish actor. Tony Guthrie would be ashamed of me. And then I couldn't speak and could scarcely move although I managed to turn away with my back to the audience. Judi, sensing my distress, somehow cobbled together the remains of the scene as a monologue and the crisis passed. Well, not quite, because it took the rest of the run at the Globe, where we had transferred after a huge success at the Aldwych Theatre, to cope and recover from this, my only bitter taste of stage fright.
He came through it, though, with flying colours. Here’s what Harold Hobson wrote in “Plays and Players”.
"In that final speech, in which all his predecessors that I have seen have failed, Ian McKellen rises to supreme heights. No actor but Mr McKellen could pass so superbly from the light-hearted nonchalance of the first part of his performance to the despairing thunder of its tremendous ending, when, the stars splitting and reeling above him, he is like a prophet on Mount Sinai. There are notes of lamentation and destruction in his voice that bring a constriction to one's throat and sweat to one's brow"
1975 – Too True to Be Good, with Sir Ian as the Burglar (looking incredibly big and tall next to tiny Judi Dench and Anna Calder-Marshall).