Ian McKellen Could Have Played Dumbledore, but Turned the Role Down Because of Richard Harris
Hearts broke across the world for Harry Potter fans when Richard Harris died in 2002. Warner Bros. was only two movies deep into the eight-film franchise and they’d already lost the perfect Dumbledore. The British actor embodied J.K. Rowling’s beloved character in every way, from his patient and wise demeanor to his half-moon spectacles and long white beard. Then Michael Gambon took over as the Hogwarts headmaster and infamously displeased many fans. (For the record, I still loved Gambon’s Dumbledore so there’s a hot take for ya.) But what if the man behind another iconic wizard had taken over for Harris instead?
That wizard is of course Gandalf and the man is Ian McKellen. Just imagine for a moment if the actor had done double duty as two of the movies’ most famous wizards. And guess what? It almost happened. During an interview on BBC Hard Talk (h/t BuzzFeed) this week, the Lord of the Rings actor revealed he was approached for the role of Dumbledore following Harris’ death.
McKellen dropped that juicy bit of info after discussing Harris and the late actor’s criticisms of his career. Apparently Harris once described McKellen (along with actors Kenneth Branagh and Derek Jacobi) as “technically brilliant, but passionless.” Not only is that just a harsh (and inaccurate) thing to say, but it’s the reason McKellen turned Dumbledore down:
When they called me up and said would I be interested in being in the Harry Potter films, they didn’t say what part, but I worked out what they were thinking. And I couldn’t. I couldn’t take over the part from an actor who I’d known didn’t approve of me.
You rarely hear about an actor deciding whether or not to take on a role based on another actor’s opinion; they might cite the filmmaker or the author of the original source material. But it’s interesting that McKellen wanted to honor the late actor’s opinion, whether or not he agreed with it. It’s easy to imagine how great a McKellen Dumbledore would have been, but the way things turned out might have been for the best.
Though the first two Lord of the Rings movies came out while Harris was still Dumbledore, McKellen played Gandalf four more times over the course of the next 12 years. While I’m sure he could’ve done a create job keeping the two wizards distinct, it might have been odd to see him play both simultaneously. Gambon ended up making Dumbledore his own eventually. He might have had some his disappointing moments (yes yes, I know your grievances around that Goblet of Fire scene), but don’t act like you didn’t sob when Gambon’s Dumbledore fell from the Astronomy Tower.