May 25, 1939– Sir Ian McKellen:
“I remember losing only one job because of my coming out of the closet. I was supposed to play one of the lead roles in Harold Pinter‘s Betrayal which eventually were given to Ben Kingsley and Jeremy Irons. The producer Sam Spiegel dropped a sexist comment about wives during a meeting and when I replied I was fortunate to be gay, I was quickly shown the door.”
We both belong to the Screen Actors Guild and 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 and came to work in films and television later in life… and 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 and I am just a dilettante. He is one of the people that I admire the most in the wicked world and he continues to inspire me.
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, who was then building his new National Theatre at the Old Vic. His first production at the National was Franco Zeffirelli‘s 1965 production of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, with Maggie Smith, Robert Stephens, Albert Finney, Derrick Jacobi and newcomer Michael York.
McKellen worked his way up through the ranks in regional repertory theatre and tours of the classics. At the Edinburgh Festival in 1969, he performed both the title roles in Richard II and Edward II (that’s a lot of IIs) and he blew away audiences and critics alike, and 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’ve arrived”.
McKellen was persuaded to join the Royal Shakespeare Company by artistic director, Trevor Nunn. He showed true range by playing both Doctor Faustus and Romeo in the same season. His Macbeth in 1976, with Dame Judi Dench as his Lady M, is probably the greatest of all time. The company took Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night on tour in the late 1970s, traveling to 26 towns in the UK, before touring the USA. McKellen claims that he loves to take theatre to the people: “It is truly was the most enjoyable thing I have ever done”.
On Broadway in 1980, McKellen played Antonio Salieri in Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus, the role for which F. Murray Abraham would later win an Academy Award. 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, the lovely Margaret 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 in Britain, co-founding The Stonewall Group. Fellow actor John Gielgud was also a contributor, but only in secret.
McKellen originated the role of Max in Martin Sherman’s Bent (1979), about the suffering of homosexuals under the Nazis. The film version in 1997 featured Clive Owen as Max, but with McKellen in the role of Uncle Freddie and with Mick Jagger appearing in drag. In 1993, he appeared on television in PBS’s Tales Of The City (1992) and in And The Band Played On (1993) about the discovery of and early fight against HIV. As activist Bill Kraus, McKellen stood out in a cast that included Richard Gere, Anjelica Huston, and Steve Martin, receiving an Emmy nomination (his first of six).
Even as a full-blown film star, McKellen continues to return to ensemble theatre appearing in productions of The Seagull, The Tempest and Noel Coward’s Present Laughter.
Forgive me, but I have never seen an X-Men film, despite my love for McKellen and Hugh Jackman. I have an aversion to anything with wizards or dragons, so I skipped those Hobbit flicks. I hope they made McKellen wheelbarrows of money. But, McKellen is responsible for two of my favorite performances of all time in a pair of my very favorite films: hilarious and outrageous in Cold Comfort Farm (1995), and pretty, witty, and gay in his Oscar nominated turn as gay director James Whale in Gods And Monsters (1998).
In the 2013-2014 Broadway season, McKellen and his pal Sir Patrick Stewart performed in a repertory presentation of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, quite the acting hat trick.
For the past few years, I thought his turn opposite openly gay Derek Jacobi, his classmate at Cambridge in the 1950s, in the British sitcom Vicious was rather delicious fun. The two friends play a pair of bitter, hilarious old queens in a long longtime relationship.
He is BFFs with writer 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.”
Up next, McKellen stars opposite Anthony Hopkins in a filmed version on Ronald Harwood‘s play The Dresser directed by Richard Eyre begins streaming on Starz next week and next year he will be singing and dancing as part of the ensemble of a very unnecessary live action remake of the Disney musical of Beauty And The Beast with Emma Watson, Luke Evans, Ewan McGregor, Dan Stevens, Emma Thompson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad and Audra McDonald.
I can’t think of a living person that I admire more. Six Olivier Awards, a Tony Award, a Golden Globe, a SAG Award, four Drama Desk Awards, and 2 Academy Award nominations, McKellen is one of the greatest actors of all time and a relentless activist for equal rights.
He remains happily single as he turns 77 years old today.