Today marks the 72nd year on Earth for one of the most versatile and interesting actors to ever grace the stage and screen. Sir Ian McKellen turns 72-years old today so I thought it would be appropriate to honor the seneschal of Shakespeare, favorite of the fanboy, and one of my all-time favorite actors with a brief career appreciation.
Sir Ian began his acting career on the stage after attending Cambridge University in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Like any good Englishman he began with roles in Shakespeare productions such as Henry IV and Cymbeline (an underrated Shakespeare gem). He regularly began appearing with the Royal Shakespeare Company where along with works of the bard he appeared in such noteworthy plays as ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, The Alchemist, Bent, and Amadeus. He became a central figure on stage in theatres around the world, where he continues to appear today most recently in a well-reviewed traveling production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
In film his start came in the 1960s with minor roles in English productions. However, he did not really become a recognizable cinematic fixture until the 1990s when he appeared in Richard Loncraine’s modern re-telling of Richard III in 1995. His performance as the treacherous scheming king earned him a European Film Award and a BAFTA nomination for Best Actor. In 1998 he appeared in the critically acclaimed biopic of director James Whale Gods and Monsters which earned McKellen his first Oscar nomination and launched him into the consciousness of the American mainstream.
He has since created iconic characters in major film franchises and become one of the most appreciated actors for his willingness to directly address his fans. When updates are needed for the upcoming Hobbit movie one of the first to comment is Sir Ian whose quotes kept hope alive that The Hobbit would actually happen. As an ardent lover of Shakespeare and theatre in general, I sincerely appreciate his ability to bring works like King Lear or Waiting for Godot to the mainstream with his film roles and his traveling theatrical performances.
Today most people undoubtedly recognize Sir Ian McKellen for his performance as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings or Magneto in the X-Men franchise. However, neither of those performances are the McKellen roles that I hold in highest regard. In fact, neither of my two favorite performances by Sir Ian occurred on film.
I spent the summer of 2007 in London studying Shakespeare with a traveling course through the University of Minnesota. Part of the trip allowed us to travel to Stratford upon Avon and see shows by the Royal Shakespeare Company including Macbett (by Ionesco), The Seagull (by Chekhov), and King Lear. The latter production featured McKellen in the title role and it was one of the single most fantastic theatrical experiences I have ever had.
The entire cast of Trevor Nunn’s production were fantastic and included recognizable names like Romola Garai. However, from start to finish the show belonged to McKellen. Despite a slightly hunched and uncomfortable looking walk, McKellen’s Lear commanded the stage in every scene with a powerful and intimidating presence. The other actors on stage who were often taller in stature and stood with more poise were reduced to rubble when faced with the rage of Lear, which is most notable in his confrontations with Kent. McKellen also demonstrated the King’s descent into madness with a remarkably sympathetic fierceness. The scene where he tears off his clothes at the seaside may inspire tears for its inherent tragedy.
The play was recorded for PBS’ Great Performances and is available on Amazon. I would highly recommend it to anybody with even the slightest interest in McKellen or Shakespeare (or both).
The other great performance from Ian McKellen comes from the Ricky Gervais’ BBC and HBO television show “Extras”. In his single episode appearance, McKellen plays a pretentious and oblivious version of himself who is directing a play. In one now famous scene McKellen sits down with Gervais and describes his acting technique saying that his method is “pretending to be the person he is playing.” Throughout the entire episode McKellen comes through with such stark and refreshing honesty that it is absolutely hilarious. He never winks at the camera (like other celebrity cameos in that show sometimes did) and I love him all the more for it.
Happy Birthday, Sir Ian! What is your favorite Ian McKellen performance?