May 25, 1939– Sir Ian McKellen is one my acting idols & one of my highest regarded gay activists. Today is his birthday.
“I remember losing only one job because of my coming out. I was supposed to play one of the lead roles in Harold Pinter‘s Betrayal who eventually were given to Ben Kingsley & Jeremy Irons. The producer Sam Spiegel dropped a sexist comment about wives during a meeting & when I replied I was fortunate to be gay, I was quickly shown the door.”
We both belong to Actors’ Unions & we both became passionate about the theatre after seeing a stage production of Peter Pan. We both started acting as a child, did university theatre, moved on to regional theatre & came to work in films & TV later in life… & we are both big old homos who thought working in the theatre was a good place to meet guys. The similarities end there. McKellen is the greatest actor of last 50 years & I am a dilettante. He is one of the people that I admire the most & inspires me the most on our pretty blue spinning orb.
McKellen became an actor to meet men. He admits that he felt isolated when he was younger, but thought he would meet other gay people if he embarked on a stage career:
“I’d heard that a lot of professional actors were gay. Acting seemed like a chance for me to meet like-minded people. You know, at that time same-sex love in Britain got you into prison. Homosexuality was being completely hushed up. Gay teachers, politicians or firemen – that was something unthinkable. When I was young I thought I was the only gay Brit. That’s why I was glad to find people like me in the actors’ guild.”
Early in his career he was spotted by Dame Maggie Smith. She recommended McKellen to Laurence Olivier, then building his new National Theatre at the Old Vic. His first production at the National was Franco Zeffirelli‘s 1965 production of Much Ado About Nothing, with Maggie Smith, Robert Stephens, Albert Finney, Derrick Jacobi & newcomer Michael York.
McKellen worked his way up through the ranks in repertory theatre & tours of the classics. At the Edinburgh Festival in 1969, Ian performed both the title roles in Richard II & Edward II & blew audiences & critics away, & probably did some blowing of his own. McKellen:
“I remember one heady evening in my dressing room at the Piccadilly, when I introduced Noel Coward to Rudolf Nureyev. I thought, I suppose I’d arrived”.
McKellen was persuaded to join the Royal Shakespeare Company by artistic director, Trevor Nunn. He showed true range by playing Doctor Faustus & Romeo. His Macbeth in 1976, with Dame Judi Dench as his lady, is considered to be the greatest of all time. The company took The Three Sisters & Twelfth Night on tour in the late 1970sm traveking to 26 towns in the UK & then on to the USA. McKellen claims that loved to take theatre to the people: “It is truly was the most enjoyable thing I have ever done”.
On Broadway in 1980, McKellen played Salieri in the Amadeus, the role for which F. Murray Abraham would later win an Oscar. McKellen was consoled with the Tony Award. Also on Broadway, he played Richard III as a wicked plotter creating a fascist state in future England. He brilliantly recreated that role on film in 1995.
Never really in the closet to the theatre community, in 1988, McKellen admitted he was gay while discussing Section 28, Margret Thatcher’s evil legislation that would have made the “public promotion of homosexuality” a crime. He became a one of the foremost campaigners for Gay Rights, co-founding The Stonewall Group. John Gielgud was also a contributor, but only in secret.
McKellen originated the role of Max in Bent (1979), about the suffering of gays under the Nazis. The film version in 1997 featured Clive Owen as Max, with McKellen in the role of Uncle Freddie & with Mick Jagger appearing in drag. In 1993, he appeared on TV in Tales Of The City & in And The Band Played On, about the discovery of & early fight against HIV. As activist Bill Kraus, Ian stood out in a cast including Richard Gere, Anjelica Huston, Steve Martin, receiving an Emmy nomination (his first of 5).
Even as a full blown film star, McKellen continues to return to ensemble theatre for a season, appearing in The Seagull, The Tempest & Noel Coward’s Present Laughter. Forgive me, I have never seen an X-Men film, despite my love for McKellen & Hugh Jackman. I have an aversion to anything with wizards or dragons, so I skipped those Hobbit flicks. But, McKellen is responsible for 2 of my favorite performances of all time in a pair of my very favorite films: hilarious & outrageous in Cold Comfort Farm (1995), & pretty, witty, gay & Oscar nominated, as gay director James Whale in Gods & Monsters (1998).
In the 2013-2014 Broadway season, McKellen & his pal Sir Patrick Stewart in a double-bill of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land & Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, quite the acting hat trick.
Last season, I thought his turn opposite openly gay Derek Jacobi, his classmate at Cambridge in the 1950s, in the British sitcom Vicious, where the 2 friends play a pair of bitter, hilarious old queens in a longtime relationship.
He is BFFs with Armistead Maupin, meeting during the filming of Tales Of The City. McKellen was the best man at Patrick Stewart’s wedding in 2014.
“I have been reluctant to lobby on other issues I most care about- nuclear weapons (against), religion (atheist), capital punishment (anti), AIDS (fund-raiser) because I never want to be forever spouting, diluting the impact of addressing my most urgent concern; legal & social equality for Gay people worldwide.”
I can’t think of a living person that I admire more. 6 Olivier Awards, a Tony, a Golden Globe, a SAG Award, 4 Drama Desk Awards, & 2 Oscar nominations, Sir Ian McKellen is one of the greatest actors of all time & a relentless activist for equal rights. He remains happily single as he turns 76 years old today.