Ian McKellen’s greatest characters

Taryn Davies
Published: June 19, 2015

Ian McKellen’s career is flooded with versatility; he built his career in theatre tackling meaty Shakespeare roles, and came into his own in film well into his forties.

There have been villains and antiheroes in big blockbusters, voice narrations and plenty of comedic roles too, proving that versatility is one of the keys to a long and very successful career.

This week sees him take on another iconic role in Mr Holmes, in which he plays Sherlock, a British film we’ve been looking forward to for quite some time.

It’s already surrounded with Oscar whispers, thanks to McKellen’s deep and moving performance which sees him team up with Bill Condon once again, this time exploring the later life of the iconic characters.

Mr Holmes film poster


It’s Sherlock Holmes as we’ve never seen him before, and we think Sir McKellen is the perfect actor to take on the role.

For the release of the film, in cinemas June 19, we run through Sir Ian McKellen’s greatest roles.

Gandalf – The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit

Sean Connery reportedly turned down the role of Gandalf before McKellen signed up for the career-changing part. Fellowship of the Ring earned him his second Oscar nomination in 2002, and he returned to the role on five further occasions to bring class and credibility to Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth.

Magneto – X-Men

Michael Fassbender might very well be the newer face of Magneto in the films, but Sir McKellen stands out as the most iconic for this blockbuster role.

We first saw the actor in the role in 2000 when Bryan Singer brough X-Men to cinemas, and it wasn't just McKellen who drew us in, there was an excellent supporting cast that included Patrick Steward, Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry.

He was more than a villain in the franchise, and relationship with Charles Xavier was certainly thrilling to see.

Sadly, it looks like we won't get another opportunity to see him in this role.

James Whale – Gods and Monsters

In 1999 McKellen got his first Oscar nomination thanks to the role of James Whale, in the biopic of the Frankenstein director. The fictional story about his bond with his gardener highlights what faced those at the time who were openly gay.

Richard III – Richard III

Director Richard Loncraine teamed up with McKellen to write this adaptation of Shakespear’s Richard III. In this version, the court of York is re-imagined as a World War II-era fascist dictatorship with the Duke of Gloucester (later King Richard III) as an aspiring Nazi ruler.

McKellen was the driving force in getting this film made, and his enthusiasm for the Bard was not only showed on-screen but also attracted the likes of Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent and Robert Downey Jr to sign on.

Kurt Dassander – Apt Pupil

McKellen's role as Kurt Dassander in the Stephen King adaptation was pivotal in helping ensure we stayed tuned into this film which left us feeling uneasy when it retold parts of the Holocaust. Dassander was a Nazi war criminal hiding in California and he was the driving force for the core of the plot.

John Profumo – Scandal

Scandal explored the Profumo Scandal, which rocked British politics back in 1963. McKellen took on the role of John Profumo, Britain’s Minister of War, who had become sexually involved with call-girl Christine Keeler.

Michael Caton-Jones was in the director’s chair for his feature film debut, a complex political thriller that explored one of British politics’ most high-profile scandals. It’s a stylistic film from the director, who really captures the look and the feel of the sixties.

Once again, McKellen shines as the lead, a character who finds his life and career turned upside down by the decisions that he makes.

Mr Holmes is in cinemas June 19