Sir Ian Murray McKellen CH CBE is an English actor who was born on May 25, 1939. He has performed in genres ranging from Shakespearean and modern theatre to popular fantasy and science fiction throughout his six-decade career.
He has won seven Laurence Olivier Awards, a Tony Award, a Golden Globe Award, and a Screen Actors Guild Award over his career. He’s also been nominated for two Academy Awards, five Primetime Emmy Awards, and four British Academy Film Awards.
His film roles as the titular King in Richard III (1995), James Whale in Gods and Monsters (1998), Magneto in the X-Men films, and Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies earned him worldwide acclaim.
His “performances have ensured him a place in the canon of English theatre and screen actors,” according to the BBC. McKellen is a British cultural icon, having won every major theatrical prize in the country. He began his professional career in 1961 as a member of the Belgrade Theatre’s prestigious repertory company.
McKellen made his first appearance on the West End in 1965. He was invited to join the Prospect Theatre Company in 1969 to play the major roles in Shakespeare’s Richard II and Marlowe’s Edward II, solidifying his reputation as one of the country’s best classical actors.
McKellen rose to prominence in the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre of Great Britain in the 1970s. For his work as Antonio Salieri in Amadeus, he won his first Tony Award nomination and win for Best Actor in a Play in 1981.
McKellen was knighted in the 1991 New Year Honours for contributions to the performing arts, and in the 2008 New Year Honours, he was awarded a Companion of Honour for services to drama and equality.
He is gay and has been out about it since 1988, and he continues to advocate for LGBT rights around the world. In October 2014, he received the Freedom of the City of London.
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Ian McKellen – Early life and education
On May 25, 1939, McKellen was born to Margery Lois (née Sutcliffe) and Denis Murray McKellen in Burnley, Lancashire. He was their second kid, and he had a five-year-old sister named Jean. His family relocated to Wigan shortly before the onset of World War II in September 1939.
They resided there until Ian was twelve years old when his father was promoted, and then moved to Bolton in 1951. Living through the war as a child had a lasting impression on him, and he subsequently stated that “it wasn’t until peace was restored… that I realized that war wasn’t natural.”
“Well, sweetie, you forget—I slept beneath a steel plate till I was four years old,” McKellen quipped in response to an interviewer’s comment that he appeared calm in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.
McKellen’s father, a civil engineer and lay preacher of Protestant Irish and Scottish ancestry was a civil engineer and lay preacher.
McKellen’s great-great-grandfather, James McKellen, was a “strict, evangelical Protestant clergyman” in Ballymena, County Antrim, and both of his grandfathers were preachers. His upbringing was strongly Christian, although not strictly orthodox.
“I was raised by humble nonconformist Christians who believed that part of living a Christian life was behaving in a Christian manner to everyone you met.”
His mother died of breast cancer when he was 12 years old, and his father died when he was 24. “Not only was she not fazed,” he stated after coming out as gay to his Quaker stepmother Gladys McKellen, “but as a part of a society that declared its indifference to people’s sexuality years ago, I think she was just delighted for my sake that I wasn’t lying anymore.”
McKellen’s great-great-grandfather Robert J. Lowes was an activist and advocate in Manchester’s ultimately successful fight for a Saturday half-holiday, the ancestor to the contemporary five-day workweek, thereby making Lowes a “grandfather of the modern weekend.”
McKellen went to Bolton School (Boys’ Division), where he is still a supporter and visits regularly to speak with students. McKellen began his acting career at Bolton Little Theatre, where he is now a patron.
McKellen was given a scholarship to St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, to study English literature when he was 18 years old.McKellen was a member of the Marlowe Society at Cambridge, and during three years, he appeared in 23 plays.
At that young age, he was already giving famous performances such as Justice Shallow in Henry IV with Trevor Nunn and Derek Jacobi (March 1959), Cymbeline (as Posthumus opposite Margaret Drabble as Imogen), and Doctor Faustus.
McKellen had already worked with Peter Hall, John Barton, and Dadie Rylands at this time, and each of them would have a big impact on McKellen’s future career.
Ian McKellen – 1969-1989: Film debut and character actor
McKellen was in three films in 1969: Michael Hayes’ The Promise, Clive Donner’s epic Alfred the Great, and Waris Hussein’s A Touch of Love. McKellen portrayed poet and writer D.H.
Lawrence in the 1981 film D.H. Lawrence. Priest of Love, a biographical film directed by Christopher Miles, stars H. Lawrence. He then went on to star in Michael Mann’s horror thriller The Keep (1983).
He starred in the 1985 picture Plenty, which was based on the David Hare play of the same name. The film starred Meryl Streep, Charles Dance, John Gielgud, and Sting and was directed by Fred Schepisi.
The story follows an Englishwoman’s experiences as a fighter for the French Resistance during World War II when she has a one-night affair with a British intelligence operative. It spans nearly 20 years, from the early 1940s to the 1960s.
The Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert praised the film’s ensemble cast, writing, “The performances in the movie supply one magnificent solo after another; most of the big moments come as characters dominate the scenes they are in.
“McKellen appeared in Scandal, a fictionalized account of the Profumo affair that rocked British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s cabinet. McKellen played John Profumo in the film. Joanne Whalley and John Hurt appeared in the picture.
The film had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 1989 when it competed for the Palme d’Or.
Ian McKellen – Personal Life
McKellen’s first romance began in 1964 with Brian Taylor, a history teacher from Bolton.Their relationship lasted eight years, terminating in 1972. McKellen maintained his acting career in London, where the couple resided. At the Edinburgh Festival in 1978, he met his second partner, Sean Mathias.
This relationship lasted until 1988, according to Mathias, and was tumultuous, with disagreements about McKellen’s acting success against Mathias’s less successful career. Mathias later directed McKellen in Waiting for Godot at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2009, and the two remained friends.
McKellen is a proud atheist who lost his appetite for all meat except fish in the late 1980s and has since pursued a primary pescetarian diet (France).
McKellen was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2006. He wrote on his blog in 2012, “There is no need for panic. I am inspected periodically and the cancer is controlled. I haven’t needed any treatment.
“McKellen became an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church in early 2013 to officiate at the wedding of his X-Men co-star Patrick Stewart and singer Sunny Ozell. By Cambridge University on 18 June 2014, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters.
Ian McKellen – Honours
- McKellen’s performances in Gods and Monsters (1999), received two Academy Award nominations
- In 2001 The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring 2001.
- He’s also been nominated for five Primetime Emmy Awards.
- McKellen was nominated for two Tony Awards, winning Best Actor in a Play in 1981 for his portrayal in Amadeus.
- He’s also won six Laurence Olivier Awards for his roles in Pillars of the Community (1977), The Alchemist (1978), Bent (1979), Wild Honey (1984), Richard III (1991), and Ian McKellen on Stage: With Tolkien, Shakespeare, Others, and YOU (2020).
- He has also received numerous honorary honors, including the Lifetime Achievement & Distinction Award from the Pride International Film Festival in 2004
- the Society’s Special Award from the Olivier Awards in 2006.
- In 2009, he was also honored with the Evening Standard Awards’ Lebedev Special Award.
McKellen was a versatile actor who took on roles ranging from Shakespearean to contemporary, as well as roles in plays by Anton Chekhov, Frank Wedekind, and others.
On June 1, 2020, McKellen joined Josh Gad’s YouTube series Reunited Apart with a number of his Lord of the Rings co-stars (plus writer Philippa Boyens and director Peter Jackson), which reunites the casts of popular movies by video-conferencing and promotes donations to non-profit causes.
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