Ian McKellen was born on the 25th of May, 1939 in Burnley, Lancashire. He was the son of Denis, a civil engineer, and Margery, who, in common with most women of her generation, was a stay-at-home mother. Ian had one sister, Jean, five years older than him. The family moved to Wigan, a few weeks after his birth, and he grew up, during the war, and immediately after, in a stable, happy and comparatively well-off Congregationalist home.
The family moved again, to Bolton, when Denis became the town’s borough surveyor, and Ian, then aged 12, became a regular player in school productions at Bolton School (Boys' Division) where he learned to project his voice audibly over "800 bottoms shifting on 800 rush-bottomed chairs".
He enjoyed cinema and theatre, and loved watching the market hawkers with their patter. His father was musical, his sister acted in amateur plays, and the whole family encouraged Ian’s artistic leanings.
Bolton also boasted the Hopefield Miniature Theatre, a converted Edwardian house where teachers and pupils would rehearse and perform to an audience of around 50 once a term. This is where Ian learned much of his technique, and he was clearly advantaged by having such a specialised drama education so early. Groups of boys were also taken to summer near Stratford-upon-Avon, from where they’d visit the Royal Shakespeare Company’s productions – something that almost put paid to Ian’s ambitions… he was so overwhelmed by the quality of the acting he almost decided to become a journalist or a chef, sure he’d never make the grade.
Ian was a good scholar, who eventually became head boy of his school and won a scholarship to St Catherine's College, Cambridge, where he became more deeply involved with acting, joining the Marlowe Society where he worked with other up and coming celebrities, including Derek Jacobi, David Frost and Margaret Drabble. He was president of the society from 1960-61
His concentration on acting was such that he let his academic work slip, and after two years his scholarship was withdrawn. He continued at university, though, earning a 2:2 honours in English Literature in 1961.
From University he went into the company the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry as an apprentice. He made his debut there – something of a disaster, since he missed his second entrance in A Man for All Seasons, however, this inauspicious beginning was soon overcome. In 1962 he moved to the Arts Theatre Company, in Ipswich, for another year’s apprenticeship, and then a third at Nottingham Playhouse.
It was in Nottingham that Ian caught the attention of the press and won his first starring role in a London play, A Scent Of Flowers directed by Michael Codron. He was superb in the role, and impressed one member of the audience particularly – Maggie Smith She recommended Ian to Laurence Olivier who was building a new National Theatre at the Old Vic. Ian employed, and his second production in London was Franco Zeffirelli's Much Ado About Nothing in 1965, with Maggie Smith, Albert Finney, Derek Jacobi and Michael York, who was recruited to the Old Vic company on the same day as Ian.
He was settled and happy, living with his lover, Brian Taylor, a history teacher from Bolton, although at that time, he did not openly acknowledge his homosexuality.
McKellen’s first Broadway stint was in The Promise with Judi Dench, in 1966 at the Henry Miller Theatre. The play had been a triumph in London, but in the States it fared less well -- it was a modern Russian play at the height of the Cold War and was picketed by US actors led by Roy Scheider who claimed British actors were stealing their jobs. Ian says he still enjoyed the trip – especially watching Joel Grey perform in Cabaret.
When Ian returned to the UK and to repertory, he started to direct which he enjoyed, and then, in 1969 he played the Edinburgh Festival in both Richard II and Edward II it was a triumph, and suddenly he was hailed as the new Olivier.
While his theatre career burgeoned, he got little film work. There was an uncompleted war movie, a few plays on television, a supporting role in A Touch of Love written by old friend Margaret Drabble and a small role in Alfred the Great, but nothing significant. This didn’t seem to worry him. He enjoyed the theatre, and with friend Edward Petherbridge, he developed the Actors' Company (a group of actors who chose and cast their own plays) in 1972. He also broke with Brian Taylor at this point of his career.
In 1976, he joined the RSC playing starring roles as Dr Faustus, Romeo, and Macbeth to enormous critical acclaim. However, he wanted more than personal glory. The same spirit that drove him to set up the Actor’s Company saw him organising an RSC "commando unit", taking Shakespeare and Chekov out into the small towns – in both the UK and the USA – he described this as "the most enjoyable thing I have ever done".
McKellen created the role of Salieri in Amadeus on Broadway, winning a Tony – but his lack of film experience saw the screen role awarded to F. Murray Abraham who won an Oscar for it. However, he did, finally, score a starring film role as DH Lawrence in Priest Of Love. This was followed by several more films, including his brilliant portrayal of a retarded man in cold, Thatcherite Britain in Stephen Frears' Walter and June.
His work in Michael Mann's thriller The Keep , however, brought him to the edge of breakdown. His role, a Jewish doctor, called for him to look 30 years older than he was – and for 12 days, he spent 5 hours in makeup without being called to the set – his nerves suffered, and the producer decided to fly him home from the set to rest. The film was completed, wonderfully, in the end though.
Ian’s theatre career was still very successful. He was named Actor Of The Year in the Olivier Awards for his role in Wild Honey at the National Theatre, organised another ensemble company with Edward Petherbridge, and in 1986 did a world tour with his one-man show Acting Shakespeare.
In 1988, he returned to the National as a producer, staging Deborah Warner's King Lear starring Brian Cox, and Richard III. His work in the title role of Richard earned Ian another Olivier, and he later took it to film – probably his most accomplished film role to date.
Away from work, Ian suddenly became involved in politics in 1988 – and controversy. The Tory government was discussing Section 28, a section of local government law which would make what it called “public promotion of homosexuality" a crime. Ian had never made a big thing of his homosexuality but this repressive legislation moved him to give a Radio Four interview coming out publically, and become a co-founder of the Stonewall gay rights campaign, named for the Stonewall Inn in New York where the gay rights movement was born. Ever since, he has been an active campaigner, and has often specifically selected roles and plays which promote homosexual equality.
He appeared in Tales Of The City, and in And The Band Played On (a wonderful movie about the discovery of AIDS and early attempts to combat it) he played activist Bill Kraus, which earned him an Emmy nomination.
In 1991, Ian was knighted for services to the arts – something of a kick in the teeth for the Tory government.
The nineties saw McKellen growing in stature as a film actor, receiving acclaim in Cold Comfort Farm, a Golden Globe nomination for Richard III and a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Tsar Nicholas opposite Alan Rickman in Rasputin (the role was also Emmy nominated). Finally, he received an Oscar nomination for his role as James Whale in Gods and Monsters.
Rather than remaining in Hollywood and riding the wave of his Oscar nomination, he returned to the theatre for a season, again in an ensemble group, doing calssics like The Tempest, before returning to movies in the light-hearted, but excellent ,X-men as the villainous Magneto. It’s likely however that his most recent film role will do more to make him a household name worldwide than previous awards, and a spectacular theatre career spanning more than 30 years – Gandalf, in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy, is a role that he plays as if born for it, and it’s bound to earn him the recognition he deserves – at last.
Ian lives in Limehouse with his long term lover, Sean Mathias.