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10 extraordinary facts about LGBT+ rights pioneer and award-winning actor Sir Ian McKellen you probably never knew

Patrick Kelleher May 25, 2020
Ian McKellen birthday 81 facts

Ian McKellen (John Phillips/Getty)

Today, acclaimed actor and LGBT+ rights acctivist Ian McKellen turns 81.

McKellen has had a long and storied career working across film, television and theatre – and is, of course, well known in the LGBT+ community for his tireless commitment to equality.

Here, we bring you 10 facts you probably didn’t know about McKellen to celebrate his success and his constant commitment to raising up his own community.

1. Ian McKellan did not know a life without war until he was four-years-old.

McKellen was born on May 25, 1939 – just months before the Second World War began. As a result, he did not know that his family’s way of life was unusual until things suddenly changed when the war came to an end.

Shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, an interviewer remarked that McKellen seemed remarkably calm. He responded: “Well, darling, you forget – I slept under a steel plate until I was four years old.”

2. His mother died of breast cancer when he was just 12-years-old.

The loss of his mother so early in life was a major tragedy for a young McKellen. Sadly, his father died when the budding actor was just 24-years-old.

However, he remained close to his stepmother Gladys McKellen throughout her life. She died at the age of 100 over a decade ago.

He has said that one of his great regrets is that he never got to come out as gay to his parents, but he did get to tell Gladys. She was a religious woman, but had the perfect response.

“Not only was she not fazed, but as a member of a society which declared its indifference to people’s sexuality years back, I think she was just glad for my sake that I wasn’t lying anymore,” he said.

3. He was taunted at school by bullies who called him ‘Oscar’.

Like many young LGBT+ people, McKellen was perceived as being different as a child by his peers.

He once said that children at school would taunt him by calling him “Oscar” in reference to Oscar Wilde, the Irish playwright who was convicted of gross indecency over his sexual liaisons with men.

Coincidentally, McKellen’s birthday coincides with the day Wilde was convicted of gross indecency.

4. Ian McKellen had a 10-episode arc in Coronation Street.

It may come as a surprise to some that McKellen is a fan of ITV soap opera Coronation Street. In 2005, he was offered a 10-episode arc on the show and he jumped at the chance.

McKellen played a novelist called Lionel Hipkiss who used the alias Mel Hutchwright in the soap.

Writing on his website at the time, McKellen said: “Often I felt a Pirandellian urge to laugh at it all. For instance, has Mel Hutchwright never watched television that he has to be introduced to characters who’ve been such a part of the nation’s life for nearly half a century?

“It’s like working with a cast full of twins. There’s fluttery Emily who is a dead ringer for her creator Eileen Derbyshire. Ken Barlow looks just like the amiable Bill Roache. Have Rita and Barbara Knox ever been seen together? Of course they have, all the time! Then I began fantasies of Mel turning up in the Emmerdale bar once he’s moved on from the Rover’s… or even the bar of the Queen Vic.”

5. His older sister introduced him to Shakespeare, sparking a lifelong love.

McKellen loved the theatre from an early age, but it was a trip with his older sister Jean to see Twelfth Night that really captured his imagination.

Jean, who was five years his senior, helped spark McKellen’s love of Shakespearean theatre, and throughout his long career, he has received acclaim for inhabiting the Bard’s characters on-stage and on-screen.

Sadly, Jean passed away more than a decade ago after suffering a stroke.

“Jean introduced me to the theatre. She was the actor before I was, in school,” he told the Evening Standard in 2005.

Ian McKellen dead before Brexit?
Sir Ian McKellen on stage during Pride in London 2019. (Mike Marsland/WireImage for Pride in London)

6. His professional acting career began in regional theatre productions.

McKellen didn’t arrive on the West End fully formed. He began his career on-stage in Coventry where he played Roper in A Man For All Seasons, a play by Robert Bolt, at the Belgrade Theatre.

He worked in regional theatre for four years before he landed his first role on the West End in A Scent of Flowers.

While many will know McKellen from his blockbuster film roles, the theatre is where he began his career – and it is still his first love.

7. He broke into the world of film in the late 1960s, but it would be some time before he became a household name.

In 1969, McKellen had his first film role in A Touch of Love, but it would be another 11 years until he would get his first leading role in a film.

In 1980, that moment finally came when he played the author D.H. Lawrence in Priest of Love.

It was some time again until he became a big name in cinema. In the 1990s, he finally entered the big leagues with appearances in the likes of Six Degrees of Separation.

8. He is an ordained minister and has helped couples celebrate their big days.

McKellen is an ordained minister with the Universal Life Church and performed the ceremony when Patrick Stewart married Sunny Ozell.

On their website, the Universal Life Church says of McKellen: “As an actor, an activist and a public figure, Sir Ian McKellen embodies class and excellence, with a warm heart and a wry sense of humor. Though it didn’t require royalty to give him the title, the Universal Life Church is still proud to count him among our ministers.”

9. He is usually billed as ‘Sir Ian McKellen’, but that’s not quite right.

He is usually referred to as Sir Ian McKellen, but that isn’t his full title – in fact, a more correct title would be Dr Sir Ian McKellen, although that doesn’t quite roll off the tongue.

McKellen earned his “doctor” title when he was given an honourary doctorate by his alma mater, the University of Cambridge, in 2014.

“I am now an honorary doctor of letters at Cambridge University UK,” he wrote on Facebook at the time.

“My old college St Catharine’s celebrated by flying the rainbow flag,” he wrote, and shared a photo of the rainbow flag flying outside his old college.

10. Ian McKellen campaigned vigorously against Section 28.

McKellen was a vocal opponent to the archaic and discriminatory legislation known as Section 28. Under the law, local authorities were banned from promoting homosexuality – which had a wide range of implications for LGBT+ people for well over a decade.

During an appearance on Have I Got News For You in 2003, McKellen said he visited the then Environment Secretary Michael Howard in 1988 to campaign against Section 28.

Howard refused to change his position on the law but did ask McKellen for his autograph for his children. McKellen said he agreed, but simply wrote on the autograph: “F**k you, I’m gay.”

McKellen was an active campaigner against the archaic and discriminatory legislation Section 28.

More: ian mckellen, Oscar Wilde, Section 28, Stonewall

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