Ian McKellen made his screen debut in 1964, but it wasn’t until he was in his 60s that he became a globally recognized household name, thanks to his performances as the X-Men franchise’s Magneto and The Lord of the Rings‘ Gandalf. Two plum roles in a pair of mega budget blockbuster series saw his star rise higher than it ever had before, and they remain arguably the two defining parts of a career that dates back close to 60 years.
Peter Jackson’s fantasy trilogy racked up 30 Academy Award nominations and seventeen wins, but McKellen’s nod for Best Supporting Actor in The Fellowship of the Ring was the only time one of the onscreen talents found themselves shortlisted for a prize. Already a legend of the stage long before he visited Middle-earth for the first time, though, the actor’s ability to be a kindly father figure, wizened sage and staff-wielding badass all at once made him the perfect choice to play Gandalf.
However, in a new interview, the 81 year-old admitted that he’s still got no idea how he ended up with the role in the first place, and put it down to all of the names in front of him in the queue rejecting it.
“I still don’t quite know how Gandalf came my way. I think because some of the actors who would have been offered it before me were rather put off by the idea of having to live in New Zealand for a year. ‘Where the hell is that?’. Well, more fool them.”
While there’s an air of self-deprecation to McKellen’s comments, he’s not too far away from the truth, either. Sean Connery was famously Jackson’s preferred candidate to throw on Gandalf’s robes, but the former James Bond didn’t understand the script or fancy spending so long on the other side of the world for the mammoth shooting schedule that took almost an entire year.
A little ironically given their decades-long friendship, Patrick Stewart was also offered the role before McKellen, as was the late Christopher Plummer, but at this stage, it’s almost impossible to imagine The Lord of the Rings without him as the White Wizard.