Several decades earlier on a visit to Scotland during my student years, I was very fortunate to catch a couple of plays being performed at the celebrated Edinburgh Festival, Shakespeare's “Richard II” and Marlowe's “Edward II”. Playing the title role in each was a young English actor about whom there was a considerable buzz in theatrical circles. The friend who accompanied me was then at drama school and madly in love with him. Unfortunately, he told me, the actor already had a boyfriend. That was the first time I knew Ian McKellan was gay.
The young McKellan as Richard II
Now everyone knows McKellan is gay. Back when he was playing Edward II, outside the theatre ‘business’ the public had no idea that this young man emerging as one of Britain's finest stage actors was anything other than a hot-blooded alpha-male. Actors were never identified with their roles, which was just as well for one very much in the closet. In the play, the character of Edward II is weak and incompetent. He has also had a 12-year gay love affair with an increasingly unpopular member of his court. He is finally forced to abdicate and months later comes to an especially nasty end - a red-hot poker thrust up his bum. The very conservative Edinburgh audience was shocked with elderly matrons walking out and many letters appearing in the press.
Having been at Cambridge University with several friends who were to become theatrical luminaries in their own right (the director of “CATS” and “Les Misérables” Trevor Nunn, and fellow gay actor Derek Jacobi), Ian McKellan was already known in the business and marked for success. He joined both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre where his major roles included Macbeth and Iago in “Othello”. In tandem he worked on a host of commercial plays in London's West End and occasionally on Broadway.
Like many of his generation of British actors, McKellan was late making the move to Hollywood. After a few smaller roles, in the 1998 movie "Gods and Monsters" he played the lead role of a famously gay Hollywood director best remembered for his horror films. It was a part which gained him a Best Actor Oscar nomination.
“Gods and Monsters” Trailer
Soon after, his movie career shot him to worldwide stardom through his roles in the “X-Men” series and Peter Jackson's “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
Show business seems to have a habit of throwing up unusual friendships. Surely none is more unusual than that of the two theatrical knights, Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart. They had met in the 1970s when both were working at the Royal Shakespeare Company. McKellan was already a star whereas Stewart was merely a humble jobbing actor trying to make ends meet to support a wife and two young children. Then Hollywood beckoned, first for Stewart in the smash hit TV series “Star Trek: The Next Generation”.
Their paths rarely crossed again until the year 2000 when both were cast in the first of the “X-Men” movies. As Stewart said in an interview with The Mirror online –
“On movies like that you spend more time sitting in your trailer waiting to work as opposed to being in front of the camera. I’d known Ian back in the 70s but never well - and to be honest I was always a little intimidated by him.
“But we hung out a lot and found out that we had huge amounts of things in common.”
Patrick Stewart’s Twitter photo of the two friends in New York in 2013
That friendship was to grow into what the tabloids have frequently called the most famous “bromance” in Hollywood. At Stewart’s third marriage, McKellan flew to New York to officiate at the ceremony. And when McKellan’s movie “Holmes” opened in London in 2015 the pair even enjoyed a lips-on-lips kiss in front of the media.
That one is gay and the other straight matters not a hoot to either man. By the time they met up again for “X-Men” circumstances had all but forced McKellan to come out. From the age of 49 the world knew that he was an openly gay man.
McKellan has Britain’s controversial Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher to thank for that. Violently opposed to proposed new UK government legislation prohibiting city councils from promoting homosexuality in schools, he became so incensed in another ‘live’ radio programme that he made his own sexuality known. A decade or so earlier such an admission could have had a negative effect on his career. Not so for McKellan. Only three years later Queen Elizabeth conferred on him a knighthood for services to the Performing Arts.
Since then, being an openly gay public figure Sir Ian has helped by lending his support to a host of gay causes and organizations, not limited to his native country. He recently recorded a video message to be played prior to the 2017 Shanghai Gay Pride Parade.
He has also made it his mission to eradicate homophobic bullying in schools. Thatcher had shepherded her law through parliament, a law ironically copied more recently in Russia. Homophobia increased during the ensuing 15 years until this “section 28” law was repealed in 2003. He then co-founded the Stonewall charity. In this role he tries to visit at least 25 schools each year to talk with pupils about gender identity. Before meeting pupils he always asks the head teacher how many gay members of staff the school has. Usually the number is small. Sometimes zero. He then goes to address as many as 700 pupils of various ages from 11 to 18. He talks about his career, the parts he has played, the difference between acting on stage and in movies. He then turns to “The Lord of the Rings”.
“As you know,” he will say, “I played Gandalf. Gandalf is gay! Did you know that? I have been out as a gay man since I was 49.” A question that is then often asked is, "Did you worry it might destroy your career?" Yes, he replies. But that was a risk he was willing to take as he explains why gay visibility at that time was so important.
Often he will ask, “Do you have any gay pupils here at your school?” At one there was a silence indicating an obvious reluctance to answer the question until one boy at the back of the hall raised his hand. “I am gay,” he said very timidly, at which the entire auditorium erupted in applause. More usually nowadays he finds that several hands are raised almost before he has finished the question. He will then ask why it matters whether anyone is gay or straight, why being called gay or queer matters. Labels don’t matter, he stresses. We are who we are and all of us should be accepted for who we are.
On the Stonewall website, he adds –
Nothing in life is more important to me than helping young people realise that there are better days ahead of them. I’m proud that Stonewall . . . is now leading the fight in those British schools where homophobic bullying ruins far too many young people’s lives. It's a privilege to play a small part in bringing it to an end.
At the venerable age of 79, there seems no stopping this modest knight, a gentle man for whom in the second half of his life gay activism is as much a part of his DNA as is the stage and screen.