Nationality: British. Born: Burnley, England, 25 May 1939; grew up in Wigan. Education: B.A. in English, St. Catharine's College, Cambridge, 1961. Career: Began acting in school plays; after graduation began acting professionally in London; Cameron Mackintosh Professor of Contemporary Theatre, Oxford, 1990; Advisor, Drama and Dance Panel for the British Council, 1991–96; Board of the Royal National Theatre Company, 1998. Awards: Clarence Derwent Award, for A Scent of Flowers , 1964; Plays and Players' Most Promising Actor, 1966; New York Drama Desk Award, for King Lear and The Wood Demon , 1974; Plays and Players' London Theatre Critics' Award for Best Actor, for Macbeth , 1976; Society of West End Theatres (SWET) Award for Comedy Performance of the Year, for The Alchemist , 1977; Society of West End Theatres (SWET) Award for Best Actor of the Year, for Pillars of the Community , 1978; Society of West End Theatres (SWET) Award for Best Actor of the Year (Bent), 1979; Commander of the British Empire, 1979; New York Drama Desk Award, for Amadeus , 1980; New York Drama
A Touch of Love ( The Millstone ; Thank You All Very Much ) (Hussein) (as George Matthews); Alfred the Great (Donner) (as Roger)
The Promise (Hayes) (as Leonidik)
Priest of Love (Miles) (as D. H. Lawrence)
The Keep (Mann) (as Dr. Theodore Cuza)
Zina (McMullen) (as Professor Kronfeld); Plenty (Schepisi) (as Sir Andrew Charleson); Walter and June ( Loving Walter ) (Frears) (as Walter)
Scandal (Caton-Jones) (as John Profumo, M.P.)
The Ballad of Little Jo (Greenwald) (as Percy Corcoran); Last Action Hero (McTiernan) (as Death); Six Degrees of Separation (Schepisi) (as Geoffrey); And the Band Played On (Spottiswoode) (as Bill Kraus)
I'll Do Anything (James L. Brooks) (as John Earl McAlpine); To Die For (Litten) (Quilt Documentary Narrator); The Shadow (Mulcahy) (as Dr. Reinhardt Lane)
Cold Comfort Farm (Schlesinger) (as Amos Starkadder); Restoration (Hoffman) (as Will Gates); Thin Ice (Cunningham-Reid) (as Himself); Jack and Sarah (Sullivan) (as William); Richard III (Loncraine) (as Richard III) (+ co-pr, co-sc)
Surviving Friendly Fire (Nelson) (as Narrator); BENT (Mathias) (as Uncle Freddie); Swept for the Sea (Kidron) (as Dr. James Kennedy)
Apt Pupil (Singer) (as Kurt Dussander); Gods and Monsters (Condon) (as James Whale)
X-Men (Singer) (as Erik Magnus Lehnsherr/Magento)
McGillivray, D., in Films and Filming (Leicester), no. 377, February 1986.
O'Toole, Lawrence, "Sympathy for the Devil," in New York Times Magazine , 5 April 1992.
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During the 1990s, Sir Ian McKellen emerged as Britain's preeminent film actor on the strength of his electrifying performances in such films as Richard III and Gods and Monsters. Demonstrating extraordinary versatility—playing classics and contemporary roles, from a fascist dictator to a gay Hollywood director—McKellen raised his long and highly acclaimed acting career to new heights, culminating in a 1999 Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
In his native country, McKellen has long been recognized as one of England's greatest actors. His mastery of Shakespeare has made him the Bard's greatest late twentieth-century interpreter. He has played most of the great Shakespearean roles, often in productions set in modern dress. But his film career was slow to take off.
The 27-year-old McKellen made his screen debut in 1966 playing a soldier in the unfinished and unreleased Mirisch Brothers World War I epic, The Bells of Hell Go Ting-A-Ling-A-Ling , starring Gregory Peck. It would be another two years before McKellen found his way into a film that made it to the theatres. In 1968, McKellen played the fur-clad, Viking-fighting Roger the Bandit in Clive Donner's Alfred the Great , starring David Hemmings and Michael York. That same year, McKellen played a more contemporary role, the small but pivotal part of a gay television host in A Touch of Love , a film about single motherhood in the 1960s. It would be another ten years before the actor was cast in a film role. In the interim, McKellen cemented his reputation on the stage, earning a CBE from Queen Elizabeth for his contributions to the theatre.
In 1979, Ian McKellen finally found a role worthy of his talent—playing D.H. Lawrence in Priest of Love , with Janet Suzman, Ava Gardner, John Gielgud, and Sarah Miles. Looking uncannily like the real Lawrence, McKellen's performance as the celebratedly sexual author centered on his tempestuous relationship with his wife and his censors. He followed up his film performance with a Tony Award-winning portrayal of Salieri in Broadway's Amadeus in 1981.
During the 1980s, McKellen appeared in four films, only two of which received any kind of significant theatrical release. In David Hare's Plenty (1986), McKellen had a supporting role as a British Foreign Service officer, Sir Andrew Charleson. But it was in Scandal that McKellen showed off his range by played John Profumo, M.P. Having just come out as a gay man, McKellen eagerly tackled one of history's most notorious heterosexuals in an effort to prove that gay actors can convincingly play straight roles.
In 1991, Queen Elizabeth II knighted Ian McKellen—the first openly gay actor to be so honored. Following his knighthood, McKellen's film career skyrocketed. During the 1990s, he made seventeen films, almost doubling his entire film output of the previous three decades. The highlights from the decade were undeniably Richard III and Gods and Monsters , but McKellen also turned in dazzling performances in a wide range of films such as Swept from the Sea , Restoration , And the Band Played On , and Six Degrees of Separation. In John Schlesinger's Cold Comfort Farm , McKellen played the depressive head of the Snakeadder clan turned fire-and-brimstone traveling preacher with a subtle lampooning wit and great good gusto. McKellen had starred as the Max in two productions of Bent , including the world premiere. For Sean Mathias's film version, McKellen played the supporting role Max's Uncle Freddie. In the Emmy Award-winning HBO miniseries, Rasputin , McKellen's nuanced portrayal of the doomed and desperate, yet tyrannical Tsar Nicolas II earned the actor a Golden Globe and an Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
But it was McKellen's sizzling performance as Richard III in the 1996 film that finally brought the actor's world-class Shakespearean talent to the big screen. Based on McKellen's stage production, Richard III was set in the 1930s, with the famed hunchback monarch transformed into a charismatic yet malcontent fascist dictator whose global ambitions are supported by his black-shirted thugs.
The successful Richard III seemed to open Hollywood's eyes to the extraordinary possibilities of Ian McKellen, film star, and the 59-year-old actor was cast as Nazi war criminal-in-hiding, Kurt Dussander, in Apt Pupil. But it was McKellen's exquisitely moving and subtle portrayal of gay Hollywood director James Whale in Gods and Monsters that earned the British actor the widespread admiration of American audiences. In the twilight of his life, the retired Whale's fascination with his handsome and very heterosexual gardener (Brendan Fraser) is movingly yet unsentimentally portrayed by McKellen, who earned a Best Actor nomination from the Motion Picture Academy.
Now in his sixties, McKellen continues to be a Hollywood darling, slated to star as Gandalf in Lord of the Rings and he portrayed the mutant leader Magneto in X-Men in 2000. One can only wonder what film performances McKellen could have given had his cinematic talents been recognized as quickly as his theatrical gifts were. Fortunately, he has many more decades to construct a lasting film legacy.