At 62 – an age when many movie stars have faded - McKellen could walk away with an Oscar for his role in “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” a fantasy about wizards, elves and hobbits.
The movie is up for 13 Academy Awards this year, including best picture, but McKellen is the only one of its stars up for an acting Oscar. Just last weekend, he won the Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor for his role in “Lord Of The Rings.”
In “Lord of the Rings,” McKellen plays Gandalf, a 7,000-year-old wizard. The movie is based on the classic fantasy by J.R.R. Tolkien and is loaded with special effects, like a monster made of fire that was created entirely by computers.
“So, it meant,” McKellen tells 60 Minutes II correspondent Charlie Rose, “that when I, Gandalf, was facing off this monster on the bridge of Cazadoom, he wasn’t actually there. I saw him when everybody else saw him, in the cinema. So, I had to have an eye line. There had to be a point of the center of this monster, that I could talk to, shout at. And it was, yes, a yellow tennis ball, stuck on a pole. So, you know, ‘You shall not bounce!’ was a joke I made at the time.”
To film “Lord of the Rings,” McKellen had to move to New Zealand for a year and put the rest of his life on hold.
It was a risky, expensive project – the trilogy of films was shot at once as three separate movies – each to be released a year apart starting in December 2001. That first installment has already earned nearly $300 million.
“This is one of the most successful films of all time. And I’m in the middle of it,” he says, adding that he probably got the part because “I’m cheaper than other actors of my experience.”
But all that may change with McKellen’s newfound stardom. In London a few weeks ago, McKellen was the toast of the British BAFTA awards ceremony for films; “Lord Of The Rings” was honored as best picture.
“It’s lovely to join in,” he says of the Oscar festivities. “But I do feel I’m an outsider who’s been allowed inside. Of course, it’s very alluring when your friends turn out to be Tom Hanks and Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. People who you wouldn’t normally think of yourself as being an equal of.”
It’s hard to imagine such comments from from one of Britain’s most noted - and knighted – actors, honored for nearly 50 years in the theatre. He has played the lead in hundreds of productions, from modern plays to the classics.
McKellen grew up in Wigan, a coal-mining town in northern England, and was 10 when he saw his first play at the Wigan Little Theatre.
“It began with me in the audience,” he says, “because that’s why I act. I act for the audience, you know? I’m there to help them enjoy themselves, at whatever level it is, whether it’s just leaning back and laughing and having a good time, or whether it’s learning forward, and jolting the mind a little bit, so that the experience changes a life, potentially.
He learned by watching Lawrence Olivier, perhaps the greatest British actor of all. Olivier hired the young McKellen to play supporting parts at Britain’s National Theatre.
McKellen idolized Olivier, but didn’t work with him for long. He wanted to play lead roles in Shakespeare, and that meant moving on.
“Shakespeare’s the Himalayas,” McKellen says. “And if you’re gonna be a mountain climber, you’ve got to try and get up there.”
For years, he only wanted to become a great Shakespearean actor, and hardly gave films a thought. In 1976, he was hailed as the definitive “Macbeth.” His co-star was Dame Judi Dench, another British actor who is up for an Oscar this year.
“I will never, ever forget the first night of “Macbeth. Ever,” she tells Rose.. “It was – I mean, I was in it, playing opposite him. But it was electrifying.”
She says his strongest quality is the fact that he changes.
“He is very malleable in a performance,” she says. “And that’s very, very good. I like that. I love that. Because it never remains stale, you know? “
McKellen became interested in movies seven years ago, after he starred in a controversial adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” set in a world that resembled Nazi Germany.
“Once Richard III had been made,” he says, “and I judged it to be good - it doesn’t matter what other people thought, I thought it was good – I wanted to do more of it.”
So the great stage actor decides he set out to expand his experience and learn a new aspect of his craft.
Then in his mid 50s, he began taking small roles to learn film acting. He was in a horror movie by Stephen King, acted the villain in “X-men,” based on the popular comic book, and received an Oscar nomination for his role as an aging film director in “Gods and Monsters.”
That 1998 movie brought him one step closer to what he really wanted: to act great parts on both stage and film, as did his idol, Lawrence Olivier.
McKellen has an anecdote about that film and Olivier – or at least a briefcase that once belonged to Olivier.
“I bid, at this charity auction, for this briefcase," he says, “because it said ‘L.O.’, Lawrence Olivier, on the outside. And I thought this would be a wonderful thing to have – to carry my own scripts in it. But bidding against me was the singer, Sting, and his wife, Trudi Styler. And so I had to give up bidding against them, as their resources were more considerable than mine. And they – they won. They got it.
“The day after I didn’t win the Oscar for "Gods and Monsters," I was in my hotel in Hollywood, not feeling sorry for myself - I’d had a great evening. But a package arrived. And inside it was the briefcase. Saying, “We’d intended this for your 60th birthday, but we thought you might need cheering up today.”
And they had added the initials ‘I.M.’ right next to the ‘L.O.’
With “Lord of the Rings,” Hollywood has embraced McKellen and so have movie fans. There were lines around the block when he recently appeared at a bookstore in Los Angeles to sign autographs.
McKellen admits his taste of fame has been fun, but says, “My own interest in that fame is that it will make producers believe that it’s all right to have me in their next movie. Of itself, it could be nothing but a nuisance, really, not to be able to go around the world privately.”
McKellen knows a thing or two about privacy, something he gave up in 1988, when he publicly announced that he was gay on a British radio program. He says coming out helped him become a better actor.
“You saw a wonderful technician,” he says of his earlier performances. “But he wasn’t 100 percent wholeheartedly committed with every part of him. There was something about his acting that was deceptive, deceitful, lying. But then I was a liar. That’s what society had forced me to be.”
Now that a new audience has discovered him, McKellen has his pick of theatre roles, and the new movie career he wanted.
“Every time I do a play, I feel I’ve come home,” he says. “Every film you do, it seems to me to be different. So film is exciting. It’s an adventure. We all like adventures. But we all like coming home.”