Ian McKellen's Life in Pictures

The legendary British actor turns 84 on May 25, 2022. Look back at his long theatrical career, his later-in-life turn in blockbuster films, and his work as an activist for gay rights

01 of 15

Ian McKellen as a Young Man

Ian McKellen life in pics
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Ian McKellen was born on May 25, 1939 to Margery and Dennis McKellen (both of whom died before McKellen turned 25). His family moved to Wigan, England shortly before World War II broke out, and lived there for 10 years before moving to Bolton, where McKellen developed an interest in theater. He got his start as a Shakespearean actor in his teens at the Bolton Little Theatre and celebrated his 80th birthday there as a patron.

02 of 15

Ian McKellen's Early Career

Ian McKellen Life in Photos
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In 1958, McKellen attended Cambridge University to study English, and joined the dramatic society while he was there, where he gained notice for his talent. By 1961 he was acting professionally and by 1965 he had made his theatrical debut on London's famed West End, in A Scent of Flowers.

03 of 15

Ian McKellen in Edward II

Ian McKellen and James Laurenson playing a love scene between Edward II and Gaveston
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The actor was highly in demand for his skill with classical texts, as seen here playing Marlowe's Edward II opposite James Laurenson. The characters had a love scene in the 1970 production, which was filmed to air on the BBC and became the first gay kiss to air on British television. At the time, McKellen was not open about being gay, and he recently reflected on the impact the kiss had on him and others.

"I didn't do that play because I was on a mission to tell people about homosexuality and certainly not my own, I was closeted, that's the word, I wasn't honest about my sexuality," he recalled in a BBC interview in March 2022. "Of course, since, I've heard from people I shall never meet saying, I'm so grateful to you for that kiss which I was watching in Indiana with my parents and we had a good conversation about it afterwards and I'm now a happily married gay man... So it was wonderful."

04 of 15

Ian McKellen Wins a Tony Award

Ian McKellen Life in Photos
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In 1981, McKellen received the Tony Award for best actor in a play for his role as Salieri in Amadeus. He's seen alongside fellow acting winners Kevin Kline, Jane Lapotaire and Lauren Bacall.

McKellen would go on to be nominated once more in 1984, for Ian McKellen: Acting Shakespeare.

05 of 15

Ian McKellen Photographed by Warhol

Ian McKellen Life in Photos
Ian McKellen/Instagram

"I fell in with Andy Warhol when I was on Broadway in 'Amadeus,' " McKellen wrote on Instagram. "He liked to snap people when he first met them, so this was probably taken when I visited his Factory in Union Square: 1981."

06 of 15

Ian McKellen and Elizabeth Taylor's Fun Photoshoot

Forever Elizabeth Iconic Photographers on a Legendary Star
Terry O'Neill/Iconic Images

The two iconic actors hammed it up at a Paramount party in 1987. Though McKellen says he was out to friends in show business at the time, he did not publicly come out until 1988, during a radio conversation about a proposed bill that would forbid Britons from "promoting homosexuality" in which he inadvertently revealed that he himself was gay.

On the 30th anniversary of the conversation, McKellen tweeted, "I've never met a gay person who regretted coming out – including myself. Life at last begins to make sense, when you are open and honest."

07 of 15

Ian McKellen's First Oscar Nomination

Ian McKellen Life in Photos
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The actor worked steadily in theater, TV and film throughout the '80s and '90s, and earned his first of two Oscar nominations in 1999 for his role in Gods and Monsters. His second came in 2001, for his role in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

08 of 15

Ian McKellen in Lord of the Rings

Ian McKellen Life in Photos
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McKellen was 60 when he landed what may be his most well-known role, that of wizard Gandalf in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.

"I often thought my gravestone would say, 'Here lies Gandalf. He came out,'" he said at a Buzzfeed event in 2014. "Those are two of the proudest achievements that I've got."

09 of 15

Ian McKellen as Magneto

Ian McKellen Life in Photos
Ian McKellen/Instagram

The star also landed another blockbuster role almost simultaneously with his Lord of the Rings work: that of supervillain Magneto in the X-Men films. ("I was intrigued to enter the world of franchises and plastic dolls. My duties included stress testing an early prototype of a Magneto toy, with the help of Bill Condon's dog," he captioned this funny throwback photo of him testing his action figure.)

Of landing two huge parts within months of each other, McKellen told PEOPLE, "One would have been enough. But two? And [it] also nearly might not have happened ... It's all about luck – being there at the right time and ready for it."

10 of 15

Ian McKellen on Saturday Night Live

Ian McKellen Life in Photos
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Though often associated with serious, Shakespearean theater, McKellen proved he could go for a laugh with the best of them during a 2002 appearance on Saturday Night Live. Here he does his best Dame Maggie Smith impression while discussing Oscar nominations with Jimmy Fallon.

11 of 15

Ian McKellen Receives Companion of Honour Medal

Ian McKellen Life in Photos
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The actor has been twice recognized in England for his contributions to the arts; in 1980 he was knighted, and in 2008 Queen Elizabeth II awarded him a Companion of Honour medal for his services to arts and equality.

12 of 15

Ian McKellen's Olivier Awards

Ian McKellen Life in Photos
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The actor has also been the recipient of seven Laurence Olivier awards (Britain's highest honor for theatrical acting), including two special honors in 2006 (pictured) and 2020.

13 of 15

Ian McKellan's Friendship with Patrick Stewart

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 28: Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen speak at John L. Tishman Auditorium at University Center on January 28, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for SAG Foundation)
lya S. Savenok/Getty

The longtime friends made the internet jealous of their bromance when they posted a series of funny pictures around New York City in 2013 while costarring in Waiting for Godot on Broadway. They have no trouble showing PDA, and are so close that McKellen even officiated Stewart's 2013 wedding to Sunny Ozell.

14 of 15

Ian McKellen at a Pride Event

Ian McKellen Life in Photos
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The actor is a vocal champion of civil rights and LGBTQ+ equality, and can often be seen participating in Pride events (like this one in London in 2019). "Waving the banner for full and total equality, and love, is something that has my total support," he said.

That same year, he helped launch a program called Pride in Ageing, which was dedicated to supporting members of the LGBTQ+ community who are over 50.

15 of 15

Ian McKellen's Recent Career

Ian McKellen Life in Photos
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The actor, who turns 84 on May 25, remains active in theater (he's seen here at a photocall for Hamlet in summer 2021) and on social media (perhaps you saw him knitting with a member of ABBA?), and recently filmed a project called Hamlet Within.

And he doesn't plan to retire anytime soon, he told The Guardian ahead of his Hamlet run. "As you get older, inside, you're ageless. Inside? Quite honestly? I feel about 12," he said. "I've been having the time of my life."

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