In a trailer on the edge of a film set beneath an underpass in downtown Cape Town, Ian McKellen, 69, is musing about fame and death, and what the papers will say when he goes. " 'GANDALF DIES,' I expect," he says. The thought tickles him. Not the dying part. The part about being a classical actor and having billions of fans, most of whom are 12. "When you spend as long as I have doing beautiful work which is only seen by a few thousand people, to be involved in popular entertainment without lessening one's standards ... that's fairly appealing," he says. "You become part of the culture." It's not that McKellen ever shied away from fame. On the contrary, he sought it out "to publicise myself to people who might employ me." You might say he overachieved. "Now it's ... well, it's gone well beyond that."
McKellen has been thought of as one of the world's great actors for more than half his life. But in the last decade, he has also transformed himself from a strict stage thespian highly rated, seen by very few into a big screen star. This year, he can be seen on the stage around Britain as Estragon in Waiting for Godot, and on television in the U.S. and Britain opposite Jim Caviezel as the villainous No. 2 in a remake (partly shot in South Africa) of the 1960s British cult series, The Prisoner. He combines high art and mass appeal once more next year when filming begins on The Hobbit, a fourth movie adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's books, in which he will again appear as the great wizard Gandalf. McKellen claims no great strategy for combining critical and commercial success. "How am I expected to make sense of a career which has basically been about me enjoying myself and hoping people would come to see me too?" he asks. But the result, as The Prisoner's producer Trevor Hopkins says, has been to grant him a position of which every actor dreams: "Ian's really in a place to do whatever he wants to do." (See pictures from the 2009 BAFTAs.)
A long time ago, when a Hilton was a hotel and Big Brother was a character in a book, there was acting and the stage and a generation of British actors to whom those were the only things that mattered. On any given night in the small provincial theaters of Britain of the 1960s, you might catch the likes of Judi Dench, Michael Gambon, Ben Kingsley, Vanessa Redgrave or Patrick Stewart plying their trade. All were born or grew up during World War II, many in northern English counties known for their booming diction, and all shared the same obsession. Says Stewart, 68: "All we wanted to do was be on the stage doing great plays with great actors. We spent years and years doing play after play."(See the 100 best movies of all time.)
McKellen was a leading light in this group. Leaving Cambridge University in 1961 with no formal training in drama, he dove into British regional theater and stayed for decades. "I took jobs other people would not," he says. "I wanted to find out how to act. I learned on the job." By the 1970s, McKellen and many of his contemporaries were often to be found in one place: at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in Stratford-upon-Avon, where the bard was born. There, in 1976, on a bare stage in a tin hut called The Other Place that could seat 150, McKellen and Dench gave two of the great stage performances of all time. "No interval, but straight through," says Dench, 74, of their Macbeth. "And not a normal kind of production at all. Plain black costumes, all very simple in a very small, dark place. We all stood round an orange box." The play was, as Dench says, "a breakthrough." The minimalist production, directed by Trevor Nunn, spawned a thousand imitations. Of McKellen, Shakespearean scholar Bernice W. Kliman gushed: "No other actor has so well depicted the existential nausea of a man who has chosen evil."
Fame, fortune and Hollywood should have followed. But little changed for McKellen. "I am an RSC sort of actor," he says of his decision to stay in Stratford. "There is nothing more sinister or enlightening than that." Besides, the RSC was in its golden age. The concentration of talent intensified with the arrival at Stratford of a new generation of actors including Kenneth Branagh, Jeremy Irons, Charles Dance and Sean Bean. By then, the veterans had developed an informal set of rules for themselves: Take the craft seriously (Dench: "deadly"). Don't take yourself seriously (Stewart: "That's death to creativity"). Never think you know it all (Dench: "Absolutely fatal"). And if the part was good and you were mindful that anything you did onscreen came from what you learned on stage, then by all means take a role on television or in film.