Sir Ian McKellen is a legendary actor, best known by many as The Lord of the Rings trilogy’s resident wizard, Gandalf. As reported by Collider, McKellen almost played another famous wizarding mentor, the Harry Potter franchise’s Albus Dumbledore. Ian McKellen declined the role due to former Dumbledore actor Richard Harris’s low opinion of McKellen’s acting.
Richard Harris took on the part of the Hogwarts headmaster for the first two Harry Potter films, The Sorcerer’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets. In August of 2002, Harris was diagnosed with Hodkin’s disease. The actor passed away in October, only a month before the release of The Chamber of Secrets.
Ian McKellen was considered for Albus Dumbledore but turned it down because of a comment Richard Harris had made about the former’s acting
The Wizarding World mourned Harris’s passing, but the show had to go on, and the search for a new Dumbledore began. Ian McKellen was on a long list of candidates for the role that included Sean Connery, Harry Robinson, Patrick McGoohan, and McKellen’s Lord of the Rings co-star, Christopher Lee.
Peter O’Toole, the legendary star of Lawrence of Arabia, was the first to be considered for the Dumbledore part. O’Toole declined, as he was close friends with Richard Harris and did not feel right taking the part over from a friend.
Ian McKellen had a similarly personal reason for his decline. McKellen explained in an interview with BBC that, during the search for Dumbledore, he received a phone call offering him a part in the Harry Potter films. The part was not specified, but McKellen did not have to channel his inner Sherlock Holmes to figure out what was really being asked.
McKellen then explained that Richard Harris had once called him a “technically brilliant, but passionless” actor. Believe it or not, McKellen did not take the criticism well.
Richard Harris called Ian McKellen, “technically brilliant, but passionless”.
Through his storied career, which includes iconic turns as Shakespeare’s Richard III and the X-Men nemesis Magneto, Ian McKellen has proven his acting chops again and again, bringing believability to even the most outlandish stories and roles.
McKellen believes in his own ability, but he did not feel right taking over the part of an actor who did not like his work. He passed on the role, and the part of Albus Dumbledore went to Michael Gambon.
Gambon played Dumbledore with vibrance and intensity over the course of six films, eventually carving out his place as the definitive Dumbledore for most Potter fans. McKellen joked that he would often see Gambon’s Dumbledore on movie posters and mistake the image for himself. Now it is hard to imagine anyone but Gambon in the role, but Ian McKellen almost pulled off one of the biggest double dips in movie history.
Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are two of the biggest fantasy franchises in the world. Gandalf and Dumbledore occupy strikingly similar positions in their respective stories, and seeing Ian McKellen in both roles may have been confusing to some.
The move may also have cheapened the roles, making Harry Potter feel like a copycat chasing the success of Lord of the Rings rather than finding its own voice.
Both franchises achieved massive success in their own rights, and Ian McKellen is content to be known as just one legendary wizard. Iconic parts in movies and TV impact culture and people’s lives in big ways, and it is wild to think that things could so easily have been so different. In the case of Ian McKellen as Dumbledore, he probably made the right choice.