Ian McKellen Gets Asked About Playing Dumbledore All The Time

Ian McKellen and Michael Gambon

It's one of the premier pop culture debates of our time: Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, or more specifically, Gandalf vs. Dumbledore. The two wizards, portrayed by Ian McKellen and Richard Harris/Michael Gambon, respectively, are iconic characters in two of the biggest franchises of the 21st century. So naturally, being in such a huge movie means that people come up to you on the street and ask about your time as a powerful wizard. Yet those people may not actually know which wizard you played, as Gandalf actor Ian McKellen has found out. The acclaimed actor apparently gets mistaken for that other wizard all the time, as he explained:

People come up to me and say 'My son's seen all the Harry Potter movies' because they think I'm Michael Gambon. When Richard Harris was ill, I was asked if I'd consider being in the movies [as his replacement] and I said, 'Absolutely. But I never heard anything else about it. Before Richard Harris died he took time out to tell the world that he thought certain actors were rubbish -- and my name was on this rather short list. With Kenneth Branagh's. I was in good company.

I wonder if, when a fan first comes up to Ian McKellen, he guesses whether or not they'll be a Lord of the Rings fan or a Harry Potter fan. It's funny because it's not like he was in some small film as a wizard either, The Lord of the Rings movies were huge, and he was in The Hobbit trilogy as well, so it's not like there is a lot more Dumbledore onscreen or anything. I guess these parents just recognize Ian McKellen as a famous actor that they know played a wizard and they know that their kid watched Harry Potter, so they conflate the two things.

It's ironic that Ian McKellen gets mistaken for Dumbledore when it was once a possibility that he could have played that character as well as Gandalf. However, as he told Time Out, original Dumbledore actor Richard Harris apparently didn't approve of his acting and he couldn't take on the role formerly played by an actor who wasn't a fan of his. So the role ultimately went to Michael Gambon, and now Ian McKellen is always reminded of the wizard he wasn't.

What's also funny about this is that I'm pretty sure Ian McKellen doesn't regularly walk around with a wizard-sized beard, as he is usually clean-shaven or only rocking a little facial hair. Given that, you would think that he might be more recognizable and have more fans coming up to him about his role as Magneto in the X-Men movies. Although maybe if he had his Gandalf beard he wouldn't be mistaken for Dumbledore as much. Who can say. But it isn't just Ian McKellen who gets asked about a character he didn't play. Curious if this mistaken case of magical identity goes both ways, and if Michael Gambon gets people coming up to him about Gandalf, Ian McKellen actually asked him:

I asked him if he ever gets confused with me. He said, 'Urgh, all the time.' I asked him what he did. He said, 'Oh, I just sign your name.'

So this isn't just a case of Harry Potter fans suffering the effects of a Confundus Charm; Lord of the Rings fans are also mixing up their actors, not knowing the difference between one of the Maia and a schoolteacher. I like that Michael Gambon just signs Ian McKellen's name. This probably happens with such frequency that he stopped trying to correct people and found it easier to just go with it.

The Dumbledore/Gandalf debate is likely to rage on for years to come, and these two beloved franchises aren't going anywhere, with each having new stories in the offing. Amazon is working on a massive Lord of the Rings TV series for its streaming service, and Ian McKellen didn't rule out a return to his iconic, and occasionally mistaken, role. On the other side of the fantasy spectrum, you'll be able to see a young Dumbledore played by Jude Law in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, in theaters on November 16.

Nick grew up in Maryland has degrees in Film Studies and Communications. His life goal is to walk the earth, meet people and get into adventures. He’s also still looking for The Adventures of Pete and Pete season 3 on DVD if anyone has a lead.