Sir Ian McKellen reveals why he turned down Dumbledore role

Sir Ian McKellen, who portrays one wizard - but turned down the chance to portray a second. Picture: PA
Sir Ian McKellen, who portrays one wizard - but turned down the chance to portray a second. Picture: PA
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Sir Ian McKellen has said he could never have taken over the role of Professor Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films after the death of Richard Harris - because he knew Harris disapproved of him as an actor.

Harris died in 2002 after starring in the first two films in the franchise and was replaced by Michael Gambon for the rest of the series.

Michael Gambon took on the role of Dumbledore after Richard Harris's death. Picture: Warner Bros

Michael Gambon took on the role of Dumbledore after Richard Harris's death. Picture: Warner Bros

The Lord Of The Rings star has previously said he was approached for a role in the wizarding saga but has now revealed he could never have succeeded Harris because of how he felt about him.

Harris once described McKellen, Derek Jacobi and Kenneth Branagh as “technically brilliant but passionless”.

During a BBC interview on the HARDtalk show to mark its 20th anniversary, McKellen dismissed Harris’s criticisms as “rubbish”.

He added: “When he died, he played Dumbledore the wizard. I played a real wizard.

Harris, as Dumbledore, pictured with Maggie Smith (left) and Miriam Margolyes in the second Harry Potter film. Picture: Warner Bros

Harris, as Dumbledore, pictured with Maggie Smith (left) and Miriam Margolyes in the second Harry Potter film. Picture: Warner Bros

“When they called me up and said would I be interested in being in the Harry Potter films, they wouldn’t say what part but I worked out what they were thinking.

“I couldn’t take over the part from an actor who I know disapproved of me.”

Asked by host Stephen Sackur: “You could have been Dumbledore?”, McKellen grinned but remained silent.

He added: “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.”

During the wide-ranging conversation, McKellen said he believes he might have had more success as an actor earlier on in his career if he had come out sooner.

The openly gay star only publicly spoke about his sexuality in 1988, 22 years after it was decriminalised.

He said: “Friends now say ‘Will you stop talking about being gay?’ But I do it because for so many years I felt like I couldn’t. So I do it for the kids who feel like they can’t.

“I wasn’t the only one who took a long time. I was only the second person to be knighted who was openly gay.

“I think I probably would have been a better actor younger (if I had come out earlier).

“Life becomes better in every possible way because it’s honest and that clearly affects your work.

“My work deals with the truth of human nature so would have been more convincing.

“Friends and colleagues say overnight my work took on more depth it hadn’t had before.”

However, discussing why there has never been an openly gay best actor Oscar winner, McKellen said he does not believe a campaign equivalent to the current push for gender equality is the way forward.

He said: “You shouldn’t look to Hollywood for social advance.

“Hollywood and the movies we love are a fantasy, that’s why we love them. It’s not the real world.

“There are plenty of wonderful films being made about the real world but they don’t come out of what we think of as Hollywood.

“My campaign is all about allowing people to be themselves whatever label they put on themselves.

“When finally it was agreed Moonlight was the Oscar film of the year, with a strong gay storyline, that comes out of gay people and in that vase black people wanting to tell a story and people should be given the freedom to do that.

“A campaign to say we must have more openly gay actors, I don’t know if that will get you very far.”

• The full interview will be broadcast on BBC HARDtalk on Tuesday.