"I remember losing only one job because of my coming out. I was supposed to play one of the lead roles in Harold Pinter's 'Betrayal' who eventually were given to Ben Kingsley & Jeremy Irons. The producer Sam Spiegel dropped a sexist comment about wives during a meeting & when I replied I was fortunate to be gay, I was quickly shown the door.”
We both belong to Acting Guilds & we both became passionate about theatre after viewing Peter Pan. We both started acting as a child, did university theatre, moved on to regional theatre & came to work in movies & TV later in life… & we are both big old homos who thought working in the theatre was a good place to meet guys. I guess the similarities end there. Sir Ian McKellen is the greatest actor of last 50 years & I am a dilettante. He is one of the people that I admire the most & inspire me the most in the world.
Sir Ian McKellen became an actor to meet men. He admits he felt isolated when he was younger, but thought he would meet other gay people if he embarked on a stage career: "I'd heard that a lot of professional actors were gay. Acting seemed like a chance for me to meet like-minded people. You know, at that time same-sex love in Britain got you into prison. Homosexuality was being completely hushed up. Gay teachers, politicians or firemen - that was something unthinkable. When I was young I thought I was the only gay Brit. That's why I was glad to find people like me in the actors guild."
Early in his career he was spotted by Maggie Smith. She recommended McKellen to Laurence Olivier, then building his new National Theatre at the Old Vic.. His first production at the National was Franco Zeffirelli's 1965 production of Much Ado About Nothing, with Maggie Smith, Robert Stephens, Albert Finney, Derrick Jacobi & newcomer Michael York.
Sir Ian worked through the ranks in repertory theatre & tours of the classics. At the Edinburgh Festival in 1969, Ian performed both Richard II & Edward II & blew audiences & critics away. McKellen:"I remember one heady evening in my dressing room at the Piccadilly, when I introduced Noel Coward to Rudolf Nureyev. I thought, I suppose I'd arrived".
McKellen was persuaded to join the Royal Shakespeare Company by its artistic director, Trevor Nunn. His range included Dr Faustus & Romeo. His Macbeth in 1976, with Judi Dench is considered to be the best since Lawrence Olivier. The company took The Three Sisters & Twelfth Night on tour to 26 towns in the UK & then on to the USA. He loved to take theatre to the people: " it truly was the most enjoyable thing I have ever done".
On Broadway in 1980, McKellen played Salieri in Amadeus. He created the role for which F. Murray Abraham would later win an Oscar. McKellen was consoled with the Tony Award. Also on Broadway, he played Richard III as a wicked plotter creating a fascist state in future England. He brilliantly recreated the role on film.
Never really in the closet to the theatre community, in 1988, McKellen admitted he was gay while discussing Section 28, Margret Thatcher’s legislation that would make the "public promotion of homosexuality" a crime. He became a one of the foremost campaigners for Gay Rights, co-founding the Stonewall group. John Gielgud would be a contributor in secret.
McKellen originated the role of Max in Bent, about the suffering of gays under the Nazis. The film version featured Clive Owen as Max, McKellen as Uncle Freddie, & with Mick Jagger appearing in drag. He appeared in Tales Of The City, & in And The Band Played On, about the discovery of & early fight against HIV. As activist Bill Kraus, Ian stood out in a cast including Richard Gere, Anjelica Huston, Steve Martin, receiving an Emmy nomination .
Even as a full blown movie star, McKellen returned to ensemble theatre for a season at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, appearing in The Seagull, The Tempest & Noel Coward’s Present Laughter. On screen he would appear in small art house film fare: The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy (another Oscar nom), X-Men, & The Da Vinci Code.
McKellen is responsible for 2 of my favorite performances in 2 of my very favorite films: hilarious & outragous in Cold Comfort Farm & pretty, witty & very gay, & Oscar nominated as director James Whale in Gods & Monsters. I can’t think of a living person that I admire more. Sir Ian McKellen is one of the greatest actors of all time & a relentless activist for equal rights. He remains happily single as he turns 73 years old today.