Ian McKellen just could not avoid being typecast as wise, white-bearded wizards in the early 2000s, it seems. The actor famously played Gandalf the Grey in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and in an interview on BBC’s HARDtalk, McKellen revealed that he received a phone call to don a pointy hat once again, this time for a totally different blockbuster fantasy franchise. But he turned it down.
Richard Harris played Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone and its sequel Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets before his death in 2002, at which point the franchise needed to recast. McKellen revealed to interviewer Stephen Sackur that around that same time, he was approached for a part in a Harry Potter film, presumably that of the Hogwarts headmaster. McKellen felt he had to refuse—specifically because Harris had disapproved of him as an actor.
Interviewer Stephen Sackur reminded McKellen of Harris’ criticism, which he said also applied to Derek Jacobi and Kenneth Branagh: “Technically brilliant, but passionless.” (The actual quote: “I’ve seen these so-called ‘nice’ actors. Very able fellows like Ian McKellen and Kenneth Branagh. But they’re like bank managers. So sweet and careful. Who needs them?”)
That seems tame by most celebrity catfight standards, but it’s a pretty sick burn by theater community standards. While McKellen dismissed the criticism as “nonsense,” he did take it to heart enough to decline the role, which went to fellow British actor Michael Gambon instead.
McKellen doesn’t seem to have regrets. “Well, sometimes when I see the posters of Mike Gambon, the actor who gloriously plays Dumbledore,” he said, “I think sometimes it is me.”