Ian McKellen is widely known as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings series, but he could have played another wise, magical mentor - Albus Dumbledore of Harry Potter fame. The history of Hollywood is littered with projects that never materialized and roles that were originally meant for other actors. As such, it can be fun to think back about how different things might have been if a good role had a better actor or a powerful performer didn't bring their weight to a weaker character. Sometimes, remnants survive and allow us a glimpse into these alternate realities, but for the most part we just have to make due with anecdotes and stories from the actors and crew who have insight into the decisions.
As a massive franchise, the Harry Potter series had a lot of roles to fill. And while its clout eventually meant that selling prestigious performers on a kids movie about magic was an easy feat, that was always the case early on. Even then, some actors will have their hearts set on one role and have no interest in the part they get offered. We recently learned that Jason Isaacs originally read for Gilderoy Lockhart, before being asked to try out for Lucius Malfoy. Not wanting to play another villain, he almost turned down the role before every parent he knew called to guilt him into doing it so their kids could visit the set. Meanwhile, it was bad blood that prevented McKellen from coming on board.
Variety got ahold of an interview the actor recently did where he opened up about how he almost played Dumbledore before ultimately passing on the role. As it happens, the original Dumbledore from the first two films, Richard Harris, made some disparaging remarks about McKellen and some of his peers shortly before his death. When asked to consider following in his footsteps, McKellen felt it a bit uncouth.
“When they called me up and said would I be interested in being in the ‘Harry Potter’ films, they didn’t say in what part. I worked out what they were thinking, and I couldn’t … I couldn’t take over the part from an actor who I’d known didn’t approve of me.”
Eventually, Michael Gambon took over the role for the remainder of the character's life in the series. Though in McKellen's mind, it's almost as if he still took the part.
“Well, sometimes, when I see the posters of Mike Gambon, the actor who gloriously plays Dumbledore, I think sometimes it is me.”
Save the series being rebooted, we don't see McKellen ever getting the chance to tackle the role again. Of course, a younger version of Dumbledore is all set to feature in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them 2 next year, and still needs an actor. Given the digital de-aging process McKellen went through for X-Men: The Last Stand, perhaps he could take on the role after all. Sadly, we don't see that happening. Instead, we'll just continue imaging him in the role while we wish for a stage adaptation of the whole series by Rowling, where McKellen will surely be Dumbledore.