Born in Burnley, Lancashire, England on May 25, 1939, McKellen was raised in Wigan and Bolton by his father, Denis, a civil engineer and his mother, Margery, a homemaker and amateur actress. Since his parents were avid theatergoers, McKellen was exposed to the stage at a very young age. When he was three, he attended his first, a production of "Peter Pan," and by the time he was six, McKellen made his stage debut alongside his mother in a church production depicting American Quakers being attacked by Native Americans. By the time he was 12, McKellen was attending the theatre on his own. It was around this time that his mother died of breast cancer. Though she never saw him perform as a professional, she did encourage McKellen to pursue acting as a career. After discovering Shakespeare through his older sister, Jean, he was hooked and began to act in school plays, including a turn as Malvolio in "Twelfth Night" at age 13.
McKellen attended both the Wigan Grammar School for Boys and Bolton School, where at the latter, he performed in several school productions, including "Henry V," at the Bolton Grand. During the summer months, McKellen and his fellow theatre enthusiasts took chaperoned camping trips to Stratford-upon-Avon, where they attended plays by day and discussed their opinions in the light of a campfire by night. After graduating, McKellen went to St. Catherine's College, University of Cambridge, where he majored in English literature, became president of the prestigious Marlowe Society, and earned a reputation for being a genius actor at a time when the university was a cauldron for exceptional British dramatic talent. While at Cambridge, he performed in almost two dozen undergraduate productions, working with such future luminaries as John Barton, Trevor Nunn and Derek Jacobi. In 1961, he made his professional stage debut in "A Man for All Seasons" for the Belgrade Theatre Company. McKellen stayed employed as an actor from that point on.
Like several of his contemporaries, McKellen trained in the now defunct repertory theater system - in his case in Coventry, Ipswitch and Nottingham - where he mastered some of the theatre's most prestigious roles, including Iago, Macbeth and Richard II, before making his London stage debut in "A Scent of Flowers" (1964). Joining the Royal National Theatre in 1965, McKellen supported then-husband-and-wife Robert Stephens and Maggie Smith in "Much Ado About Nothing," then appeared that same year in a production of Arthur Wing Pinero's "Trelawny of the 'Wells" (1965). McKellen had his first breakout lead in the Russian play "The Promise" (1967), starring opposite Judi Dench in London and then Eileen Atkins on Broadway at Henry Miller's Theatre. McKellen recreated the part for his first leading role in the little-seen feature version in 1969. That same year, he had a role in the British-made epic, "Alfred the Great" (1969), then played a television broadcaster who fathers a child out of wedlock with a graduate student (Sandy Dennis), who then has the child without his knowledge in "A Touch of Love" (1969). Though he had made the crossover to film, it would be over a decade until he made another.
In the ensuing years since his onscreen debut, McKellen amassed numerous awards and accolades for playing Shakespearean roles, including a memorable performance as "Macbeth" (1976-77) in Stratford-upon-Avon and in London. But he earned international acclaim for playing parts in the works of two contemporary playwrights. First, he essayed the role of Max, a gay man who pretends to be Jewish when he is shipped to a concentration camp, in Martin Sherman's groundbreaking Bent (1997). The following year, McKellen was dynamic in the role of Salieri, the jealous rival of Mozart (Tim Curry), in Peter Shaffer's fine "Amadeus" (1980). Recreating Salieri on Broadway solidified his stature and earned both a Drama Desk Award and a Tony Award for Lead Actor in a play. Although he continued to appear on stage throughout the world - including appearances in two well-received solo shows, "Acting Shakespeare" and "A Knight Out" - McKellen found himself with film and television opportunities. He was tapped to play author D.H. Lawrence in the highly literate, but slightly stodgy biopic Priest of Love (1981). Most notably, he deftly portrayed a mentally challenged man in "Walter" (Channel 4, 1982), earning him more awards and acclaim.
Like several of his contemporaries, McKellen had a knack for disappearing behind gobs of makeup to become virtually unrecognizable in order to inhabit a role, as he did playing a rapidly aging doctor in the offbeat supernatural thriller, The Keep (). He was then seen by American audiences in the made-for-television adaptation of the French Revolution-era adventure, "The Scarlet Pimpernel" (CBS, 1982), playing the ruthless Paul Chauvelin, undaunted suitor to the married Marguerite Blakeney (Jane Seymour) and determined government official who will stop at nothing in trying to uncover the secret identity of an Englishman (Anthony Andrews) who rescues doomed Frenchman from the guillotine. Back on the stage, he reprised his one-man show, "Acting Shakespeare," on Broadway, for which he received a Tony nomination. Though he continued to land the occasional film and television role, including a supporting part in the British television adaptation of David Hare's Plenty (1985) starring Meryl Streep, McKellen was still finding it difficult to make himself a known onscreen commodity. He did, however, have several triumphs in the theatre, including award-winning turns in "Wild Honey" (1984), "Coriolanus" (1985) and "Othello" (1989).
In 1988, McKellen took a brave personal step when he was being interviewed on BBC radio by conservative host Peregrine Worsthorne, who was a big supporter of Section 28, a pending law that prohibited local authorities from promoting "homosexual causes." Tired of hearing Worsthorne refer to gays as "them," McKellen replied, "I am one of them." While his admission made headlines in the United Kingdom and spawned much talk that he would be typecast in future parts, McKellen confounded his critics by undertaking the role of John Profumo, a politician brought down by a notorious heterosexual sex scandal in the 1960s in the feature, Scandal (1989). Fully embodying a manly character, the actor demonstrated that his own sexual orientation was immaterial to his abilities as a performer. Then in 1991, after a turn as Richard III (1995) at the National Theatre, McKellen was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for outstanding services in the performing arts. In an ironic twist, he was on the same honors list as radio host Peregrine Worsthorne. Meanwhile, "Richard III" departed England and went on a world tour, including a leg in the United States in 1992 that included a stop at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Soon after his coming out on BBC radio, McKellen began to become more active in gay-related causes, forming the gay rights lobby group, Stonewall, with former actor-turned-politician Michael Cashman. After recreating the role of Max in a one-night only staging of "Bent" that later led to a revival, he played the role of AIDS activist Bill Kraus in the acclaimed HBO movie "And the Band Played On" (1993), then devised his one-man show "A Knight Out" (1994), which he performed as a benefit for the Gay Games. He subsequently took the show on the road in the United Kingdom, South Africa, Brussels and Los Angeles. Even though he had a hugely successful and respected stage career, McKellen longed for work on screen. Taking matters into his own hands, he produced and starred in a contemporary adaptation of Richard III (1995), which transposed the charismatic but ruthless monarch from Elizabethan times to a London in the 1930s that has been turned into a fascist state. Though the film failed to find much of an audience in theaters, McKellen's performance was hailed by critics and, more importantly, captured the attention of Hollywood.
Following a well-received supporting performance as Russian Czar Nicholas II in the historical drama "Rasputin" (HBO, 1996), McKellen accepted the supporting role of Freddie, who attempts to help Max escape from the Nazis, in the feature version of Bent (1997). As he approached his sixties, McKellen had suddenly become an unlikely movie star with two outstanding performances. In the under-performing thriller, Apt Pupil (1998), Bryan Singer's adaptation of a Stephen King novella, McKellen offered a chilling depiction of evil in the guise of a former Nazi identified by a local schoolboy (Brad Renfro) who exhorts him to impart his knowledge. But his undeniable triumph was his portrayal of an aged James Whale, the expatriate British film director best-known for the horror films "Frankenstein" (1931), "The Invisible Man" (1933), "The Bride of Frankenstein" (1935), in Bill Condon's superlative Gods and Monsters (1998). McKellen found numerous parallels between their lives; both hailed from the same area of England, both started on stage as actors, and both were homosexual, which informed his deeply moving characterization, which was amplified by an equally compelling performance by co-star Brendan Fraser, helping him nab numerous critics awards and his first Oscar nomination.
Right on the heels of these acclaimed film roles, McKellen returned to his greatest love - the stage - first in Henrik Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People" (1998) at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, then portrayed self-absorbed actor Garry Essendine in Noel Coward's popular comedy, "Present Laughter" (1998), which was staged at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, England. But McKellen's absence from the silver screen did not last long. He reunited with Singer to play Patrick Stewart's evil rival Magneto in X-Men (2000), the hotly anticipated summer feature based on the adventures of the Marvel Comic superheroes. That same year, he signed on to play the wizard Gandalf in Peter Jackson's equally anticipated "Lord of the Rings," starting with an Oscar-nominated performance in the opening installment, "The Fellowship of the Ring" (2001). After decades of barely any film roles, McKellen found himself in some of the biggest blockbusters ever produced in roles equally beloved. He followed with reprisals of Gandalf in "The Two Towers" (2002) and "The Return of the King" (2003), which earned him more rave reviews and the adulation of J.R.R. Tolkien fans, then made another subset of fans equally happy for returning as the villainous Magneto for the comic book sequel "X2" (2003) - which most fans felt was superior to its predecessor - and the final outing, X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), a disappointing offering from new director Brett Ratner.
In Asylum (2005), a dour period drama starring Natasha Richardson as a board 1950s housewife who falls in love with an asylum patient (Marton Csokas) under the care of her husband (Hugh Bonneville), the hospital's forensic psychologist, McKellen played a cunning hospital administrator suspicious of the illicit love affair. Turning briefly to animation, he voiced Zebedee the Sorcerer in the U.K. version of Doogal (2006), based on a French television series aired on the BBC. McKellen then appeared in one of the more controversial and anticipated movies to come along in decades, The Da Vinci Code (2006), directed by Ron Howard from Dan Brown's mega-blockbuster book about a famed symbologist (Tom Hanks) called to the Louvre Museum, where a curator has been murdered and left behind a trail of mysterious clues that eventually lead to a secret society which guards a secret that could destroy the foundation of society.
Despite his two Oscar nominations, McKellen was not above spoofing himself. In 2006, McKellen turned in a wicked parody of himself on the critically acclaimed comedy series "Extras" (HBO, 2005-07). Playing on his real-life public persona as a prominent out-of-the-closet celebrity, McKellen served as a hysterically funny, utterly cringe-worthy foil for the show's homophobic lead character, Andy Millman (Ricky Gervais.) The guest-starring role earned McKellen his first Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series. In 2007, he starred in an acclaimed Royal Shakespeare Company production of "King Lear," delivering a high-caliber performance as the titular monarch, then returned to animated features to voice the armored bear, Iorek Byrnison, in The Golden Compass (2007). McKellen once again returned triumphantly to the stage, playing Sorin in Anton Chekov's "The Seagull" (2007) at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, then reprised "King Lear" (2007) in New York, New Zealand and London, a role he filmed for the small screen in a December 2008 airing on PBS. For his television performance as Lear, he earned an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie in 2009. McKellen found himself in Emmy contention once again, this time for his starring turn on "The Prisoner" (AMC, 2009- ), a remake of the 1967 series about a man known simply as Two (McKellen), who wakes up on a mysterious island with no recollection of how he ended up there. Under constant surveillance, Two struggles to make sense of his new surroundings while trying escape. Though the miniseries received mixed reviews, McKellen was unanimously praised for his performance, earning an Emmy Award nod for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie.
Other than contributing to various short film projects and starring in a touring production of Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," McKellen was seen little on the big screen over the next three years, until his glorious return as Gandalf the Grey in director Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012). The first in another trilogy of films based on Tolkien's beloved Middle-earth mythology, the prequel told the story of a young hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who leaves his hearth and home to embark on a dangerous quest to wrest a fortune in treasure away from a fearsome dragon. The impetus for Bilbo's unlikely trek comes from McKellen's wizard, who plays upon the hobbit's pride in an effort to recruit him for the dangerous mission. A cinematic reunion of sorts, McKellen was joined by such "Rings" alumnus as Elijah Wood, Christopher Lee and Cate Blanchett.
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