It’s difficult to imagine the world as it exists without McKellen’s fearless, groundbreaking performances, and activism.
I first encountered McKellen on TV, when I watched HBO’s 1993 adaptation of Randy Shilts’ seminal, and sometimes sensational book, about the early days of the AIDS epidemic, And The Band Played On.
One of the first books to chronicle the early days of the AIDS Epidemic, the movie eerily captured the uncertainty and forboding that permeated San Francisco at the the time. Even more remarkable, McKellen and B. D. Wong, both out actors, not only played gay characters, but even lovers.
McKellen portrayed Bill Kraus, a gay rights and AIDS activist and congressional aide. B. D. Wong played Kico Govantes, a San Francisco artist and Bill Kraus’ lover
There’s a scene that has haunted me ever since: McKellen as Kraus is exercising on a rowing machine when he spies what appears to be a dark spot on his ankle. The one thing Kraus does know is that Kaposi’s Sarcoma, is a sure sign that you probably had the mysterious gay cancer wiping out a whole generation of queer men.
McKellen made his first professional acting appearance in 1961 at the Belgrade Theatre, and in 1965 made his first appearance in the West End. He has won every major theatrical award in the UK, including six Laurence Olivier Awards. He is best known for his film roles as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, the X-Men films, Gods and Monsters (1998) and Richard III (1995).
McKellen was knighted in 1991 for services to the performing arts.
McKellen’s unlikely meteoric rise to become a an integral part of three global Hollywood franchises, X-Men, The Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit, began when director Bryan Singer wanted McKellen to play the villainous mutant terrorist Magneto to pacifist and X-Men founder Professor Charles Xavier, played by Patrick Stewart.
McKellen had no interest in the superhero genre, but Singer sold McKellen on the role when he related the metaphor for Marvel’s mutants was different than being part of traditionally marginalized groups, because when you’re a mutant, like being LGBT, you are different than your family.
McKellen had just starred in Singer’s Apt Pupil, a dark story about a Nazi obsessed teenager named Todd Bowden (played by Brad Renfro), who discovers a fugitive Nazi war criminal, Kurt Dussander (McKellen), living in his neighborhood under a pseudonym.
Directed and co-produced by Bryan Singer and written by Brandon Boyce. The film, was based on the 1982 novella of the same name that was one of four stories in the book Different Seasons by Stephen King (Stand By Me and Shawshank Redemption are two other films that came from Seasons).
Bowden, obsessed with Nazism and the Holocaust, persuades Dussander to share his stories, and their relationship stirs malice in each of them. Singer has called Apt Pupil “a study in cruelty”, with Nazism serving as a vehicle to demonstrate the capacity of evil.
When McKellen was cast as Gandalf the Great for Peter Jackson’s sprawling, epic screen version of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, he went global. In an interview on The Colbert Report, McKellen noted that Burger King would be carrying merchandise with his likeness around the world and a first for an openly gay actor.
McKellen has been an outspoken activist for the LGBT community since coming out publicly in 1988 in an interview on BBC Radio and cofounded Stonewall, the UK’s foremost LGBT+ charity.
In 1988 he lobbied against Section 28, a government bill which aimed to prevent the “promotion” of homosexuality. On an episode of Have I Got News for You McKellen said that when then-environment secretary Michael Howard refused to change his position on the bill but asked for an autograph for his children, McKellen agreed and then wrote: “F*ck off, I’m gay.”
The charity was conceived 30 years ago McKellen’s dining table, and he’s one of the charity’s 14 founding members.
McKellen remains vigilant and says on his website that his most urgent concern is “legal and social equality for gay people worldwide.”
Last night Hugh Jackman wished his X-Men co-star, Sir Ian McKellen, a happy birthday in a very big way. See Hugh and a sold-out arena serenade the 80-year old legend via Twitter with a super-sized rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ below!