Learn more about Ian McKellen before seeing him in 'Player Kings'

Player Kings, an adaptation of two Shakespeare dramas, is at the Noël Coward Theatre in the West End until 22 June.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

He might be world famous as Gandalf and Magneto, but Ian McKellen is still, aged 84, just as dedicated to theatre as ever. His current role is the iconic Falstaff in Player Kings, award-winning writer/director Robert Icke's new adaptation of Henry IV: Parts 1 and 2.

It’s the latest assured choice from one of our great thespians, who, throughout his astonishing career, has nimbly balanced stage and screen work, and popular blockbusters with classical drama. He’s even fulfilled his dream of becoming a pantomime dame.

To celebrate the London run of Player Kings, join us for a look back through the decades of McKellen’s extraordinary career.

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Ian McKellen made his professional debut in A Man for All Seasons at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry in 1961. He continued to gain valuable experience through the regional rep system, leading up to his West End debut in A Scent of Flowers in 1964 at the Duke of York’s Theatre.

He joined Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre Company, then based at the Old Vic, and played roles such as young lover Claudio in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. But it was another Shakespeare play that really made his name: Richard II, in which he played the title role for the Prospect Theatre Company on tour from 1968. McKellen also made waves when he starred as Marlowe’s notable gay protagonist Edward II.

McKellen began his screen career in the 1960s, too. His first TV credit came in 1964, in an episode of The Indian Tales of Rudyard Kipling, and he won the titular role in the 1966 BBC adaptation of Dickens’ David Copperfield.

On the big screen, 1969 saw three movies featuring McKellen: historical epic Alfred the Great, an adaptation of Margaret Drabble’s novel A Touch of Love, and a romance set during the Siege of Leningrad, The Promise. However, it wasn’t until much later that he really became renowned as a film actor.


McKellen became a star of British theatre in the 1970s, mainly renowned for his incredible classical work. He frequently toured the UK, with productions like The Recruiting Officer, Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, The Way of the World and King Lear – and also took those latter two over the pond to the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

He both led and directed West End shows too. He starred in King John at the Aldwych Theatre in 1975, and directed productions such as* The Real Inspector Hound, A Private Matter* and The Clandestine Marriage.

Additionally, McKellen collaborated frequently with the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing roles like Romeo, Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, and Face in The Alchemist. His electrifying Macbeth with Judi Dench, directed by Trevor Nunn, is regarded as one of the finest productions of the play in theatre history.

But he also acted in some significant contemporary plays, such as Tom Stoppard’s 1977 work Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, set in a Soviet mental hospital, and, in 1979, Martin Sherman’s confrontational play Bent, about the persecution of gay people in Nazi Germany. The latter saw McKellen win one of his six Olivier Awards.

Photo credit: Ian McKellen in Hamlet (Photo courtesy of Theatre Royal Windsor)


When the National Theatre’s acclaimed production of Amadeus transferred to Broadway in 1980, Ian McKellen took over the lead role of Antonio Salieri – and his committed performance won him the Tony Award for Best Actor. He then starred in the National’s production of Chekhov play Wild Honey in 1984, winning another Best Actor Olivier, and took that to Broadway in 1986, where his American cast included Kim Cattrall.

McKellen collaborated with the National on several other shows too, such as The Duchess of Malfi, The Cherry Orchard and The Real Inspector Hound. He did an Alan Ayckbourn comedy in the West End in 1988, Henceforward…, and put his brilliant stamp on more Shakespearean roles: Iago and Coriolanus.

The 1980s also saw McKellen’s screen career beginning to flourish. In 1981 he played DH Lawrence in the movie Priest of Love, and in 1985 he appeared in the film adaptation of David Hare’s Plenty (starring Meryl Streep). In the 1989 movie Scandal, which dramatised the real-life Profumo affair, McKellen played Profumo.

On TV, McKellen made appearances in shows like The Scarlet Pimpernel, Walter, and, in 1989, he played Hitler in Countdown to War.


McKellen was knighted in 1991, and continued to dominate the British stage. He starred in Richard III, winning another Olivier Award, and in the National’s production of Uncle Vanya. From 1993, McKellen also branched out, cementing his other role as an activist. He toured the country in his one-man show A Knights Out, discussing his coming out journey.

He took on a wide range of stage projects, too: everything from Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People to Noel Coward comedy Present Laughter, playing Prospero in The Tempest and Captain Hook in Peter Pan. He acted in the West End, at the National, and at regional theatres like the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

However, the 1990s also saw McKellen really hit his stride as a screen actor. He joined a big-name cast (Will Smith, Stockard Channing, Donald Sutherland) in Six Degrees of Separation, tried his hand at a Western, The Ballad of Little Jo, and starred alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in Last Action Hero (all in 1993).

He also made his first – though certainly not last – appearance in a superhero movie, with 1994’s The Shadow. The following year, McKellen brought his Richard III to the big screen, setting the play in the fascist 1930s. His cast featured Annette Benning, Maggie Smith, and Robert Downey Jr. McKellen’s own performance saw him BAFTA and Golden Globe nominated.

In 1998, he played a former Nazi officer hiding out in the US in the psychological thriller Apt Pupil, an adaptation of Stephen King’s story, directed by Bryan Singer. That won McKellen great acclaim, as did another film that year: Gods and Monsters, in which he played Frankenstein director James Whale. McKellen was nominated for an Academy Award.

On TV, his projects included And the Band Played On in 1993, playing gay rights activist Bill Kraus, and, in 1995, the BBC adaptation of comic novel Cold Comfort Farm. He then won an Emmy in 1996 for playing Tsar Nicholas II opposite Alan Rickman’s Rasputin in Rasputin: Dark Servant of Destiny. He also appeared in the BBC’s David Copperfield, which starred a then-unknown young actor named Daniel Radcliffe…


McKellen continued on stage in the 2000s, beginning with The Dance of Dance on Broadway opposite Helen Mirren, and then playing pantomime dame Widow Twankie in Aladdin at the Old Vic in 2004. He also played Lear and Sorin in The Seagull in a double bill that went from Stratford to Brooklyn and the West End. Finally, he starred in Waiting for Godot in the West End – then took the production to Australia and South Africa.

However, this is really the decade of McKellen the mega screen star. He became a worldwide household name in 2000 thanks to his phenomenal performance as metal-twisting antagonist Magneto in X-Men – a franchise he remained with for several more movies.

He cemented that A-lister status with his wizard Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001 – for which he was Oscar and BAFTA nominated. Again he returned to the role in Peter Jackson’s hugely successful franchise for sequels The Two Towers and The Return of the King. His other films in the 2000s included The Da Vinci Code and Philip Pullman adaptation The Golden Compass.

As further proof of his new celebrity profile, he hosted Saturday Night Live in 2002 and guest starred on The Simpsons, ER and Extras (winning an Emmy for the latter). He also made a cameo appearance in British soap Coronation Street – another long-held ambition.


McKellen took a Beckett/Pinter double bill, Waiting for Godot and No Man’s Land, to Broadway in 2013 – co-starring with Patrick Stewart – and reprised the latter in the West End in 2016. He also gave his Lear to Chichester Festival Theatre and then West End audiences in 2017-18, and, in 2019, to celebrate his 80th birthday, he toured his one-man show around the UK to raise money for regional venues and charities.

Otherwise this was more of a screen-heavy decade for McKellen, with the return of Gandalf in the Hobbit movies, beginning in 2012, and of Magneto in The Wolverine (2013) and X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). He played an older Sherlock Holmes in 2015 movie Mr Holmes, voiced Cogsworth in Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast in 2017, and played Gus the Theatre Cat in the infamous 2019 live-action Cats.

On TV, McKellen appeared in the Doctor Who 50th anniversary celebrations, and, from 2013, co-starred with Derek Jacobi in new sitcom Vicious, about an elderly gay couple. McKellen then played the titular role in the BBC’s adaptation of stage play The Dresser in 2015, opposite Anthony Hopkins.

Mother Goose - LT - 1200x600


McKellen is still going strong in the 2020s. In fact, in 2021, he proved his phenomenal theatrical stamina by playing an age-defying Hamlet at the Theatre Royal Windsor – and then went to the opposite end of the spectrum and played the elderly servant Firs in The Cherry Orchard. McKellen also played a pantomime dame once again, starring as Mother Goose in a major UK tour in 2022-23.

On the big screen, he appeared in sci-fi film Infinitum: Subject Unknown in 2021, and his latest movie is period thriller The Critic, written by Patrick Marber and co-starring Gemma Arterton, Mark Strong, Lesley Manville and Romola Garai.

McKellen returned to the stage in new comic play Frank & Percy, an intimate two-hander about two lonely souls who strike up an unlikely friendship and then something more, at Theatre Royal Windsor and later at The Other Palace.

Now, the veteran of classical fare returns to his roots as Falstaff, the party-hearty friend of a reluctant heir to a contested English throne. Don’t miss your chance to see this legendary theatrical knight and screen icon live!

Book Player Kings tickets on London Theatre.

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