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The Mc Kellens, who were progressive, were staunch about small things—no tea, no coffee, no alcohol—and about large ones. “You were here on this earth to leave the world a better place than you found it.” The family took in evacuees, a German prisoner of war, and, according to Mc Kellen, “the first black man to appear in Wigan.” “I can remember walking out with him in Wigan,” Mc Kellen said of their African guest. It’s entirely typical of our family to have welcomed a stranger in. Catharine’s College, Cambridge, where he studied English under F. Leavis, the astonishing thing, Mc Kellen said, “was to meet other boys as dotty about theatre as I was. One would like to know the name of this Shallow because it might obviously become a name to remember.“It was like being told you were beautiful when you’d always thought you had big ears,” Mc Kellen said in a 1976 interview. From then on, I stopped playing old men and played juveniles, because I knew that’s what I’d have to do.
“By the time we’d got to the town center, there’d be a crowd of kids following us. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was a stranger myself in the midst of this.”Mc Kellen’s family may have been freethinking, but he never discussed his homosexuality at home. “That was hard for me because, in not talking about myself, I was lying. There was no gay life that I’d perceived at home in Lancashire. I wasn’t the odd one out.”In fact, Cambridge, when Mc Kellen arrived there, in 1959, was a theatrical powerhouse. “I’d heard that there were many remarkable people around Cambridge, but really the genius actor was a guy called Ian Mc Kellen,” Nunn said, recalling his first sighting of his fellow-student. At the theatre on the day of the review, he spotted Richard Cottrell, who stammered, “Got an agent yet? They’re the difficult parts, because you can’t disguise. I started training myself to be fit to be a professional,” he told me.
Is it any wonder that under that sort of pressure, day in day out, eventually you give in, and say, ‘All right, yes, I’m queer’? I am still hurt by it.” Inevitably, Mc Kellen’s dissimulation imposed a distance between him and his parents. Within that, there’s love—love of all sorts,” Mc Kellen told me. He met and worked with numerous people who went on to become significant players in British culture: the performers Peter Cook, Derek Jacobi, Corin Redgrave, and David Frost, and the directors John Tydeman, later the influential head of BBC radio drama; John Barton, the Shakespearean director and éminence grise; Richard Cottrell, a director at the Bristol Old Vic and the Prospect Theatre, which gave Mc Kellen his big break, as Richard II, in 1968; and, especially, Trevor Nunn, who became, at twenty-eight, the head of the R. “I had imagined somebody who looked like a young Charles Laughton. The figure in the duffel coat seemed to be an affable, perfectly ordinary Cambridge student. The young actor not only plays the mad old gentleman quite brilliantly—he also shows himself to be a master of make-up, which is the rarest thing in amateurs. Looking back on his Cambridge career, Mc Kellen now regrets his haphazard studies (“I did no work”) and the exclusivity of his sexual orientation (“That I didn’t have an affair with a woman seems to me ridiculous. Nonetheless, for him, gay life at the university had a special importance.
It’s quite a small step from saying ‘I am unusual’ to saying ‘I shouldn’t be the way I am.’ You invent your own homophobia. “I didn’t talk to them about anything important,” he said. We never got a proper relationship going.” His father died in a car accident in 1964, when Mc Kellen was twenty-five. When he was confused about the direction of his life, the theatre gave him plots; when he couldn’t parse his feelings, it gave him words; when he was bewildered about his private identity, it gave him a persuasive public one. I said to the person who pointed him out to me, ‘Are you sure that’s the guy with the big reputation? Funny walks.” His “thunderclap” moment, as he calls it, came in his first year, when the prestigious Marlowe Society was putting on both parts of “Henry IV.” In true amateur spirit, the Marlowe Society refused to list the names of the players in its program. “It was something I knew about but other people didn’t,” he said.
His father moved Ian and his older sister, Jean, to Bolton around that time, and remarried when Ian was fourteen.
His face is a craggy terrain, and the bags under his heavy-lidded eyes have deepened and drooped.
But, if Mc Kellen’s face carries the striations of time, his body doesn’t.
’ ”“My acting at the time was all about disguise,” Mc Kellen said. Still, Mc Kellen’s Justice Shallow was singled out by Alan Dent in his review in the Infinitely the best performance, though, is that of Justice Shallow who is genuinely ancient, wheezy, full of sudden changes and chortles and sadnesses. “That’s the odd thing, people will tell you—in the days when the closet was the norm, it was quite fun, working out whether somebody was gay or not.” In his first job in repertory, Mc Kellen had photographs made up that he autographed and handed out to the girls who waited at the backstage door.
“I don’t know that it ever occurred to me that I would be famous,” he said.