By Yohana Desta. Photos: Getty Images.
In a recent interview with the BBC’s HARDtalk show, the Oscar-nominated actor explained the real reason he turned down the role of Dumbledore in the Harry Potter franchise, after original Dumbledore Richard Harris died in 2002. McKellen explains that he made his decision because Harris thoroughly disliked him, and found McKellen (as well as actors Derek Jacobi and Kenneth Branaugh, who starred in the second Potter film) to be “technically brilliant, but passionless” performers.
“Yeah. Nonsense,” McKellen quipped, later joking that while Harris may have played a wizard, it was McKellen who played “the real wizard.” (Before being approached to take over as Dumbledore, McKellen portrayed Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings franchise.)
After Harris’s death, producers for Potter reached out to McKellen—but the actor simply couldn’t accept the role, thanks to Harris’s previous criticism. “I couldn’t take over the part from an actor who I had known didn’t approve of me,” McKellen explained.
It’s all very Bette vs. Joan—though the parallels would be starker if McKellen had embraced a pettier nature and gone on to play Dumbledore after all. (Joan would have.)
Michael Gambon, of course, actually went on to play Dumbledore for the rest of the Potter films, and did it “gloriously,” McKellen added.
McKellen has previously discussed Harris’s disdain for him, joking in past interviews that he didn’t want to play Dumbledore because he had already played “the original” wizard—before digging into the Harris aspect. “Seeing as one of the last things [Harris] did publicly was say what a dreadful actor he thought I was, it would not have been appropriate for me to take over his part,” he said in 2007. “It would have been unfair.”
Shortly after Harris’s death in 2002, McKellen wrote a short tribute to the actor on his personal website, noting that he first met Harris in 1992 at the Sunset Marquis in Los Angeles. “He was in the bar, drinking soda with two miniature poodles at his feet. He was like a character in a Jacques Tati movie. When recently he criticized me and others for being passionless actors I supposed he might be a little upset that I had landed the superior wizard on screen.”
But McKellen ended the tribute on a less petty note: “To die supported by acclaim and a steady job is more than most actors dare hope for, even wonderful ones like Harris.”
This story originally appeared on Vanity Fair.
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