Blog | 12 November 2003 | Adieu to Gandalf

How many times have I thought it was over, my life with the wizard? When I flew home to the UK from New Zealand in late December 2000, the principal photography was completed. Funds flowed as the film was finished on time, although how much over-budget will no doubt occupy Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema a good while yet. Before the release of the first film a year later, I was back in Wellington for a little more time with Gandalf the Grey by May 2001, meeting old friends and worrying that the gummy false nose might be permanently damaging my skin beneath.

Gandalf is a spirit, laid down in Tolkien's novels with love and respect. The wizard and his creator had more in common than a bowl of weed. Isn't Gandalf the old man that Tolkien (and many more of us) would like to be? I wouldn't mind having a few tricks like his up my sleeve and I would be pleased to have a life as active and fulfilled as Gandalf's. Is that why he is so beloved and respected by the readers and now the filmgoers?

The chatting and boasting to the world's media followed. Then the release date (19 December 2001) and suddenly Gandalf was everywhere. On the posters of course, but also in the toy shops and on the New Zealand postage stamps. I met his life-size cut-outs in video and book shops. But I have never felt that these commercialisations of his image impinged on Gandalf himself.

When I'm asked to sign Gandalf as well as my own name by importunate autograph hunters, I explain that Gandalf doesn't give autographs and I remember how Alistair Sim always refused, often really upsetting the juvenile with her album. If anyone persists I also explain that Gandalf isn't here with us. Last week I went on to say that Gandalf doesn't exist! Although of course he does.

I like him for his sense of humour and sense of occasion. I like his independence and need for company. Kids, some as young as five, look wonderingly up as their grandparents introduce us, searching for Gandalf in my face. I hope they feel as I did aged three sitting on Father Christmas's knee in the grotto of our local store in Wigan. I could see it was a cotton-wool beard and it didn't fit. This wasn't the real Santa Claus. He was elsewhere preparing my stocking. The real Gandalf is elsewhere and I bet those kids know it because they trust him and love him like their grandad.

It has been often overwhelming to adjust to being his representative. Should I sign every poster at every stage-door or in the street late at night for the guy with six photographs I know he's going to try and flog on E-bay? Reporters want to know if I resent Gandalf taking over my career and the rest of my life. I don't. And I'm happy that, as this site proves, Gandalf's fans have discovered James Whale, Richard III and the crazed Dussander.

I expect that after the last hurrah, the long-expected party over and the trilogy fully released, interest will subside but in the meantime there have been other fascinating men in my life. In the last two years I have worked again with Magneto and then Emile in Vancouver, Dr. Cleave in Dublin and Leeds in Asylum and still under my skin, much more so than Gandalf, is Edgar in Dance of Death. He gets a third outing at the Sydney Festival in January. He's heavily on my mind and I must read the play soon.

I really did work on Lord of the Rings for the last time last week. Two days before the film was to be locked-off, no more changes possible, I was hurriedly called into a Soho sound studio to re-record scraps of dialogue for the completed cut. I had to deliver at full throttle 20 instructions to the troops of Minas Tirith. Three takes each made it 60 times that I bellowed and scraped the larynx, leaving me a little hoarse. Now with a cold on top, I have been a growling Prospero for the Naxos audio of The Tempest, recording at the Royal National Institute for the Blind headquarters in north London.

This has brought me to some old friends, principally the director John Tydeman who is now retired as head of BBC Radio Drama. We were undergraduates together. He was giving notes to the actors this morning and he called me "the wizard." I jumped in indignation thinking "I am Prospero not Gandalf, however gravelly my voice". But then I realised John thinks of Prospero as a wizard too. — Ian McKellen, October 2003

Gandalf banner on the New Zealand Post building overlooking Wellington Harbour, November 2003, Photo by Simon Allison
Gandalf Billboard, Los Angeles, 2003
Wardrobe Adjustments, Stone Street Studios, 2003
Signing autographs in Los Angeles