Celebrating the life and career of the all-time great actor Ian McKellen

By | Posted on 14-Jun-2019

Celebrating the life and career of the all-time great actor Ian McKellen

As one of Britain’s finest actors, Ian McKellen is no stranger to the West End stage. After his latest production titled Ian McKellen on Stage: Shakespeare, Tolkien and YOU was performed at the Harold Pinter Theatre in 2019, we take a look at the theatre veteran’s on-stage career, as well as performances on the silver screen which has solidified his status as one of the greatest actors of all time.

All about Ian McKellen

What was his early career like?

Born on 25th May 1939 in Burnley, Lancashire, McKellen was quickly introduced to the magic of live entertainment. At three years old, he saw a production of Peter Pan which immediately got him hooked to the desire of becoming an actor. Growing up, McKellen continued to watch productions of Shakespeare’s classics including Macbeth and A Midsummer’s Night Dream, but it wasn’t until he commenced studies at Cambridge University that he would refine his Shakespearean prowess. Starring alongside Trevor Nunn and Derek Jacobi as a member of the Marlowe Society, the theatre world began to take notice of McKellen, with his professional theatre debut in a production of A Man for All Seasons at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre in 1961.

Ian McKellen’s first shows in the West End

After starring in repertory theatre productions across the country, Ian McKellen made his West End debut in A Scent of Flowers at the Old Vic, later becoming a member of Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre Company, which you can read more about here. As part of the company, he starred in plays including Armstrong’s Last Goodnight and Trelawny of the ‘Wells’.

In the 1970s, McKellen became a notable member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, starring as the titular role in Macbeth alongside Judi Dench. Winning Olivier Awards consecutively from 1977-1979 for performances in Pillars of the Community, The Alchemist and Bent respectively, it was clear he had cemented his status as a leading West End performer. But never one to leave home comforts, McKellen starred in productions across the country, notably playing Garry Essendine in Present Laughter at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Has Ian McKellen only performed on stage?

Delivering award-winning performances around the world, McKellen has also starred in some of the highest-grossing film franchises. From 2000-2014, he starred as Erink Lehnsherr / Magneto in the X-Men films, alongside a cast including Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Lawrence, Peter Dinklage and Patrick Stewart. In 2001, McKellen made his debut appearance as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, later reprising his role in The Hobbit trilogy from 2012-2014.

Additional silver screen performances include Cogsworth in the 2017 Disney live-animation of Beauty and the Beast, the titular character in the 2015 film Mr. Holmes and Leigh Teabing in the 2006 film adaptation of The Da Vinci Code. In 2019, McKellen will play Gus the Theatre Cat in the upcoming film adaptation of Cats, based on the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musical of the same name.

What West End productions has Ian McKellen recently starred in?

McKellen’s first West End performance in the 2000s saw him venture into pantomime, playing Widow Twankie in Aladdin at the Old Vic. Stepping on stage in 2004 as the dame, he reprised the role the following year.

King Lear
Ian McKellen in King Lear

In 2007, he performed in The Seagull and King Lear for the Royal Shakespeare Company, directed by Trevor Nunn at the New London Theatre (now called the Gillian Lynne Theatre). With both shows performed on a world tour, McKellen fans waited two years to see him tread the West End stage again, appearing in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. With two formidable actors playing iconic roles, the production was highly successful, later transferring to Broadway’s Cort Theatre in 2013.

Reuniting with Stewart for No Man’s Land in 2016, McKellen’s recent credits include lending his voice to The Demon in The Exorcist and the titular role in King Lear at the Duke of York’s Theatre in 2018, which was a sell-out engagement.

Returning to the West End

McKellen’s next appearance on the West End stage took place in 2019. After visiting 80 theatres across the United Kingdom, McKellen shared previously untold anecdotes and reprise iconic performances from his career at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Audiences enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the legendary British actor share stories and speak candidly about his legendary theatrical career.