Ian McKellen Explains Why He Refused to Play Dumbledore in Harry Potter

Image: New Line
Image: New Line

If you had to replace a beloved actor who unfortunately passed away in the middle of filming a franchise, you might go looking for someone who also had experience in the “long-bearded wizard” department. Unfortunately for Warner Bros., Ian McKellen refused to take up the Dumbledore mantle.


On BBC’s HardTalk, McKellen told the story of why he turned down Dumbledore, in response to a question about Richard Harris once referring to McKellen, Derek Jacobi, and Kenneth Branagh as “technically brilliant but passionless.”

“When he died, he played Dumbledore, the wizard,” said McKellen. “I played the real wizard.”

“But when they called me up and said would I be interested in being in the Harry Potter films—they didn’t say what part—I worked out what they were thinking, and I couldn’t. I couldn’t take over the part from an actor I’d known didn’t approve of me.”

It’s not as if the Lord of the Rings star desperately needed another franchise on his resume, so no harm no foul. It is almost weirder that Warner Bros. offered the role to the man who had just played one of fiction’s most famous old wizards in another massively popular film series. On the one hand, he does have experience. On the other, wouldn’t it have gotten really confusing to see McKellen-as-Dumbledore premiering so soon after McKellen-as-Gandalf ended?

Anyway, McKellen is in good spirits about the whole thing. When host Stephen Sackur asked, “You mean you could have been Dumbledore?” McKellen responded, “Well sometimes, sometimes when I see the posters of [Harris’ eventual replacement] Mike Gambon, the actor who gloriously plays Dumbledore, I think sometimes it is me.”

As it happens, the resemblance between Gambon’s Dumbledore and McKellen’s Gandalf was so strong that the dummy Gandalf used in The Hobbit was named after Gambon. So, in a way, one actor was both wizards.


[HardTalk via EW]

Katharine is the Associate Director of Policy and Activism at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the former managing editor of io9. She writes about technology policy and pop culture.



I’ll get crucified for this but:

I liked Gambon better than Harris

Sure Harris got the whimsy playful part right, but Gambon got the right mix when it came to later parts where he was more of an ass to Harry, when things got harder and more dangerous.