Wait, It's A Lie That Ian McKellen Turned Down Playing Harry Potter's Dumbledore?

Richard Harris as Albus Dumbledore

Didn't Ian McKellen turn down playing Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies after Richard Harris passed away? It might not be the most important piece of Harry Potter trivia, but I was living with that assumption -- and I thought it was understood from the Lord of the Rings star himself. Maybe not.

Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren are co-starring in the new movie The Good Liar and now I don't trust anything they say. As promotion for the November 15 movie, they played a game of Two Truths And A Lie, and the first round surprised me with a different version of the Dumbledore story.

Ian McKellen read off three statements about himself, with the understanding being that two would be true and Helen Mirren had to pick out the lie:

• The first film I ever made was never released.• I turned down the role of Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies.• Kate Beckinsale once proposed marriage to me.

Helen Mirren laughed at the Kate Beckinsale one -- girl, I get it -- and quickly picked the Dumbledore one as the lie. Ian McKellen responded, "Well, that's correct! I say."

Watch their conversation:

A photo posted by on

Helen Mirren is a very good liar! But the Dumbledore lie confuses me, because I thought there was a whole thing about that. Harry Potter's original Dumbledore actor, Richard Harris, had made some comments about various actors, including Ian McKellen, saying McKellen was "technically brilliant but passionless." That was brought up in an interview with BBC's HARDtalk a few years back, and it was used as part of McKellen's explanation for turning down the role after Harris died. As McKellen said, at the time:

When they called me up and said, 'Would I be interested in the Harry Potter films?,' they didn't say what part. I worked out what they were thinking and I couldn't. I couldn't take over the part from an actor I'd known didn't approve of me.

That's the story that has been out there, that Sir Ian McKellen turned down the role of Dumbledore because he didn't think Richard Harris would approve. So what was McKellen saying in his BuzzFeed game? Was he using the technicality that he wasn't officially offered that role, he "worked out" what role they meant?

Maybe he didn't even get the chance to turn it down? Here's something else he told Time Out last year:

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.

Based on that slightly different story from Ian McKellen, I'm wondering if he never got to the point of turning down Dumbledore. Either way, the world got plenty of wizarding gold out of McKellen as Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings movies -- and if the Amazon series somehow brings Gandalf back, McKellen sound down to stay in the role.

Ian McKellen also showed his supernatural powers in the X-Men movies, which just wrapped up with Dark Phoenix. We'll probably have to wait for the MCU's Phase 5 to know how Kevin Feige plans to use the X-Men now that Fox is no longer in control.

No disrespect to Michael Gambon -- who is still ready to continue as Dumbledore in the Fantastic Beasts movies, if they call him -- but I do think Ian McKellen might've been a better fit as Dumbledore from the third Harry Potter movie onward. Gambon's Dumbledore was a little too rough-and-ready for me, and I think McKellen would've struck the right tone -- even if Harris wasn't a personal fan of his acting. To me, there's enough McKellen to go around for every major franchise.

What do you think of this Dumbledore development? While we're chatting, what did you make of that other Dumbledore development in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald? The Dumbledore family history will be further explored in Fantastic Beasts 3.

Gina Carbone

Gina grew up in Massachusetts and California in her own version of The Parent Trap. She went to three different middle schools, four high schools, and three universities -- including half a year in Perth, Western Australia. She currently lives in a small town in Maine, the kind Stephen King regularly sets terrible things in, so this may be the last you hear from her.