Ian McKellen is one of the most beloved actors in the world of movie nerdom, and beyond. He’s been nominated for two Oscars and five Emmys, won a Tony and starred in everything from comedies and fantasy epics to thrillers and Shakespeare dramas since 1969. Among the many notable British actors who have beome famous stateside, McKellen is near the top of the list.
Two of McKellen’s most recognizable roles came in two of the most popular American blockbuster franchises in history - X-Men and Lord of the Rings. He played the charismatic mutant Magneto in four X-Men movies (with an uncredited appearance in a fifth one), and he played wily wizard Gandalf the Grey in six Peter Jackson epics. Both characters are imprinted on the modern movie consciousness because of McKellen’s gravitas, which combined respect and fresh dramatic insight into characters who have been familiar to audiences in various forms for years.
However, McKellen’s career almost went down a very different path. People reports that McKellen strongly considered taking a role as the villain opposite Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible II. (The M:I role in question is likely the one played by Rade Serbedzija, who played Russian biochemical expert Dr. Vladimir Nekhorvich.) Here's McKellen explanation for what prevented that from happening:
I got offered a part in Mission: Impossible II with Tom Cruise, but they wouldn’t let me see the whole script because I might have spilled the beans. I only got my scenes. Well, I couldn't judge from reading just those scenes what the script was like. So I said no. And my agent said, "You cant say no to working with Tom Cruise!" and I said, "I think I will."
Interestingly, Mission: Impossible II costar Dougray Scott almost played Wolverine in Singer's original X-Men movie. However, the shoot on the Cruise sequel ran long, and the studio called in Hugh Jackman as Scott’s replacement. Which is to say: Mission: Impossible II nearly cost one actor two lifetime roles and afforded another actor one lifetime role.
The day after McKellen turned down Mission: Impossible II, X-Men director Bryan Singer and Lord of the Rings auteur Peter Jackson both called to offer him the iconic roles of Magneto and Gandalf, respectively. However, once again, things almost didn't work out for McKellen:
Then, Bryan Singer's first X-Men overran its preparation. It had to delay, delay, delay, delay. So I had to call up Peter Jackson and say, "I'm sorry. I can't play Gandalf because X-Men, which I agreed to do first, is overrunning." And Peter Jackson said, "Well, I'll keep it free for you. Let me know what happens." I told Bryan Singer and he said, "Well, you must do Gandalf. I'll make sure you get out in time."
The alternate timeline in which McKellen takes the role in the Mission: Impossible sequel is quite different (the 'darkest timeline'?). McKellen’s portrayal of M:I 2's villain may've been more interesting than anything that actually happened in that movie, but it’s near-impossible to imagine any other actor playing Magneto or Gandalf with the same wisdom or authority. This story offers a fun opportunity to imagine how things would've been different... But in this case, it’s good that things turned out the way they did.
You can currently see Sir Ian McKellen on the big screen in the film Mr. Holmes.