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The Real Reason Ian McKellen Turned Down the Role of Dumbledore in Harry Potter

Martin Chalakoski

Sir Ian McKellen is a living legend. But when he was asked “Is there a role you’ve ever turned down because it was too puerile, too silly, just…?” by Stephen Sackur, host of the BBC’s HARDtalk. He replied: “About once a weak, yes. Oh yeah, lots of stuff.”

After Richard Harris passed away in 2002 of Hodgkin’s Disease, Ian McKellen was offered the chance to portray Professor Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series. He was already playing a famed archetypal wizened wizard in a different book adaptation but could have easily inhabited yet another one. Still, he said no.

Only recently and during the 20th-anniversary episode of a British talk show did the actor reveal the real reason as to why he declined one of the greatest offers that fell unexpectedly in his lap.

Ian McKellen (L) as Gandalf with Elijah Wood as Frodo. (Photo by New Line/WireImage/Getty Images)

Ian McKellen (L) as Gandalf with Elijah Wood as Frodo. (Photo by New Line/WireImage/Getty Images)

“When {Richard Harris] died–he played Dumbledore, the wizard–I played the real wizard, of course,” said McKellen, referring to his career-defining portrayal of Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. “When they called me up and said would I be interested in being in the Harry Potter films, they didn’t say what part, but I worked out what they were thinking, and I couldn’t.”

A former rugby player, a prolific stage, and screen actor, as well as a great singer, Richard Harris wasn’t a knight like his colleague but lived to be acknowledged as perhaps the best Irish actor that has ever lived.

He acted in about 70 movies over the course of his 50-years-long illustrious career. Highly critical of them as he was, Harris said not long before he died that “sometimes you have to make a low standard of film to sustain a high standard of living.”

Richard Harris 1985 Photo by City of Boston Archives CC BY 2.0

Richard Harris 1985 Photo by City of Boston Archives CC BY 2.0

But the films Harris acted in during the later stages of his life were not of low standard. On the contrary, they were nothing short of spectacular and his performance brilliant.

Think Gladiator and his portrayal of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor, or Harris as Abbé Faria, the priest-philosopher made political prisoner who was thrown into Chateau d’If, the prison off the coast of Marseilles, where he was counting stones and digging holes alongside Edmond Dantes (Jim Caviezel) in Dumas’s film adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo.

The first photo of Jude Law as Dumbledore is here!

And as Dumbledore, the headmaster of the wizarding school of Hogwarts, Richard Harris was just perfect.

This undated file photo shows Irish actor Richard Harris in the role of Professor Dumbledore in the US film ‘Harry Potter’. (Photo by AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

This undated file photo shows Irish actor Richard Harris in the role of Professor Dumbledore in the US film ‘Harry Potter’. (Photo by AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

However, it was not meant to last, and much as he was invaluable to the story and irreplaceable to the franchise, he simply had to be replaced by someone else–which turned out to be even more problematic than the filmmakers first feared.

Eventually, the role went to Michael Gambon. But before that decision, it was a challenge of recasting.

Michael Gambon Photo by IamIrishwikiuser CC BY-SA 3.0

Michael Gambon Photo by IamIrishwikiuser CC BY-SA 3.0

“The role is so fundamental to the character and narrative of the movies, and was played so beautifully by the late Richard Harris, that the studio and filmmakers intend to make a very careful and considered choice in casting the next actor to embody the headmaster of Hogwarts School,” a spokeswoman for Warner Bros. declared after the actor died.

Harris had only taken part in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 2001, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets the year after.

Everyone saw Harris’s lifelong friend Peter O’Toole as the prime candidate to take on the role, and reportedly the actor’s family members were eager to see O’Toole as Dumbledore and wave the Elder Wand as his friend did.

Peter O’Toole – 1968

Peter O’Toole – 1968

The two men being close and almost the same age seemed like it would make this the perfect choice. However, the years were catching up with O’Toole, so there were worries if he would be able to physically endure the six remaining films. Also, although never officially revealed, it is safe to assume that it would be tough for an actor to feel like he needs to live up to or reproduce his close friend’s brilliant acting performance.

McKellen, the 78-year-old star, now a wizard with experience but in a different franchise, was then offered the chance to replace Harris, but he couldn’t out of sheer respect towards himself and the other actor. Also, McKellen apparently turned down the lucrative and pretty tempting offer claiming it was because he knew Harris didn’t think very much of his acting ability:

“I couldn’t take over the part from an actor who I’d known hadn’t approved of me,” explained McKellen during the interview.

Ian McKellen at the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con International. Photo: Gage SkidmoreCC BY-SA 2.0

Ian McKellen at the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con International. Photo: Gage Skidmore
CC BY-SA 2.0

As much as Harris was critical about his own work, he was just the same if not even more so about the work of others. He once described McKellen, Sir Derek Jacobi, and Kenneth Branagh as “technically brilliant but passionless” actors.

“They are technically brilliant, like Omega watches, but underneath they are hollow because their lives are hollow,” he said about them according to The Telegraph, which the actor verified by saying, “I was in a good company, yeah,” referring to himself as being part of a bunch accused of being passionless.

Seemingly unfazed by it, he continued by saying, “Nonsense,” smiled, and moved on to the next question asked by his host: “You could have been Dumbledore?” McKellen grinned but gave no audible answer.

Ian McKellen In Lord of The Rings (Getty Images)

Ian McKellen In Lord of The Rings (Getty Images)

“When I see the posters of Mike Gambon, who gloriously played Dumbledore, I think sometimes it’s me. We get asked for each other’s autographs,” he said before concluding the interview by confirming that when his days on Earth come to an end, he would be amused if his gravestone read “Here Lies Gandalf.”

Related story from us: WWII veteran Christopher Lee corrected “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson on what people do when they’re knifed based on his WW2 service

For, as McKellen says, it is the only character he has ever played that provided him with the opportunity to “be in contact with lots of people, especially young ones from all over the world, that I couldn’t possibly know about and they let me into their lives to an extent,” emphasizing that it was a privilege to him “to be allowed to impersonate a character that already was in the zeitgeist and meant a great deal as an example of how to behave in the world.”