Ian Murray McKellen was born at 20.30 Greenwich Mean Time, on 25 May 1939, in the general hospital of Burnley, the northern English mill town where his father Denis Murray was a civil engineer. He and Margery Lois (nee Sutcliffe) already had a five-year-old daughter Jean. Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, the family moved to Wigan (population 80,000) a coal-mining town in south Lancashire. In his earliest years, Ian slept under the iron bomb-proof table in the dining-room. Overcoming diphtheria when he was three, he was shortly after attending the nursery school attached to the Dicconson Street Wesleyan Primary School in the centre of the town. He walked to school, from the family four-bedroomed semi-detached house (circa 1929) opposite Mesnes Park and backing onto Wigan Cricket Club's grounds. On Sundays he attended morning service at Hope Street Congregational Church and afternoon Sunday School. By eleven, he was at Wigan Grammar School for Boys but a year later transferred to Bolton School (Boys' Division), when his father was made Borough Engineer and Surveyor of Bolton (population 120,000).
An early fascination with theatre was encouraged by Ian's parents, who took him on a family outing to Peter Pan at Manchester Opera House when he was three. When he was nine, his main Christmas present was a wood and bakelite, fold-away Victorian Theatre from Pollocks Toy Theatres, with cardboard scenery and wires to push on the cut-outs of Cinderella and of Olivier's Hamlet. His sister took him to his first Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, by the amateurs of Wigan's Little Theatre, shortly followed by their Macbeth and Wigan High School for Girls' production of A Midsummer Night's Dream with music by Mendelssohn and Bottom by Jean McKellen. (Until her recent death, Jean still acted, directed, and produced amateur theatre.)
At all his schools he acted, most crucially for Frank Greene, the senior English master who directed the annual, spring-term Bolton School classical play in the main hall, seating 800 people. Bolton School, where McKellen was a scholar, further encouraged the tyro actor at the Hopefield Miniature Theatre. This converted Edwardian house had an auditorium for 50 adoring parents and a tiny stage for puppetry, one-act entertainments in French or translated from the Greek or written especially by the masters. In one of these latter, Ian made the first of very few appearances in drag, as a Bolton mill-girl who cheats her way to the finale of a beauty contest (The Beauty Contest by Leonard Roe.) His first Shakespeare performance was at Hopefield, as a 13 year old Malvolio in the letter scene from Twelfth Night.
Each summer, Ian attended the school's camp to Stratford-upon-Avon: under canvas in Bell tents in a field upstream in Tiddington, half-an-hour to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre by punt. In the evening, he saw Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Charles Laughton, Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, Paul Robeson in Shakespeare and, round the camp-stove, learnt to express why not all the productions were good.
As it was, Ian won an exhibition to read English at St. Catharine's College, Cambridge under the tutorship of Tom Henn, the Shakespeare and Yeats scholar. This honour was withdrawn after two years, as his academic progress had been overtaken by the 21 undergraduate productions he acted in. He began to be noted by the national press: "I regret the Marlowe Society's tradition of not naming its actors, because in the case of this quite brilliant Justice Shallow, his might well become a name to remember." This production of the two parts of Shakespeare's Henry IV was directed by the junior don John Barton (ever since eminence gris of the Royal Shakespeare Company), with Derek Jacobi as Prince Hal (like Sir Ian, now knighted for his services to the performing arts). Others at Cambridge planning show business careers, were David Frost (with Ian in Nigel Dennis's Cards of Identity); Trevor Nunn(in Marlowe's Dr. Faustus at the open-air theatre of Stratford-upon-Avon 1960); Margaret Drabble (in Shakespeare's Cymbeline and Richard Cottrell's first play Deutsches Haus at the Arts Theatre, his first appearance on the London stage).
When Ian graduated Bachelor Arts (2.2) in 1961, he had decided to become an actor ("I wasn't fit for anything else!") and without going to drama school made his first performance as Roper in the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry's production of A Man for All Seasons. Three years later, he was living in London with two Scottish terriers and his lover Brian Taylor, a history schoolteacher from Bolton at 25, Earl's Terrace in Kensington. When that relationship changed in 1972, Ian bought his first house at 17, Camberwell Grove, where he lived alone for eight years. During this time, without any contact with the burgeoning gay rights movement, he was openly gay at home and at work. He was, however, closeted in not being honest with his blood family nor with the media ("neither of whom showed much interest in my sexuality, whatever it might have been. Probably because for most people in England, sex is a tricky topic.")
From the proceeds of a year on Broadway as Salieri in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, Ian bought a riverside terraced house in Limehouse, within sight of both Canary Wharf and Tower Bridge. For eight years he lived there with his lover Sean Mathias, with whom Ian tries regularly to work (recently in the film version of Bent, Dance of Death, Aladdin, and Waiting for Godot.) He still lives in Limehouse, using the London Light Docklands Railways to access the Underground system. Locally he drinks late nights at the gay pub "The White Swan" and is patron of the St. Paul's Arts Centre on the Isle of Dogs, where he has given benefit peformances of his latest solo show A Knight Out.
Sir Ian has often held establishment appointments: Head Boy of Bolton School (1957-58); President of the Marlowe Society (1960-61); elected to Council of British Actors' Equity (1971); served on Drama and Dance Panel advising the British Council; Development Council raising funds for the Royal National Theatre (1991-96; Cameron Mackintosh Profesor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford (1990); patron of English Touring Theatre. As well as his scores of awards for acting, Sir Ian has honours from Nottingham, Leeds, Oxford and Aberdeen Universities, plus gay organisations in UK, USA and South Africa. He was named "Commander of the British Empire" (CBE) in 1979, followed by his Knighthood of the British Empire (KBE) for services to the performing arts in the Queen's New Year Honours of 1990. He is one of the very few openly-gay knights. In 2007 Queen Elizabeth named him to the Order of Companions of Honour (CH).
In 1988, he publicly came out as a gay man during a BBC Radio 3 discussion about the Thatcher government's infamous "Section 28" of the Local Government Act, making illegal the public "promotion of homosexuality." He overnight became an active member of the movement to change those UK laws which discriminate against lesbians and gay men. He is a co-founder of "Stonewall" which works for social and legal equality and he annually directed its principal source of funding "The Equality Show" at the Royal Albert Hall.
In 1998 he was appointed to the board of the Royal National Theatre Company.
These days, Sir Ian is happy to answer any enquiry from the media but is reluctant to talk about details of his private life which involves other people. Although a vegetarian, a New Labour Party supporter, and a donator to numerous charities, ("I prefer to restrict my public views to what I know best - acting and activism".)
"In my case, it was my father and not my mother who played the piano. My childhood was wrapped in a blanket of melodies by Chopin, Liszt and Tchaikowsky, as Dad tried not to get his huge fingers stuck between the keys of our upright piano, that stood behind the door of our little lounge, directly below my even smaller bedroom, where I was trying to get to sleep. I inherited the hands but not the musicianship." — Ian McKellen, remembering his early childhood in an excerpt from his one-man show A Knight Out
On his first theatre experience, Peter Pan:
"I wasn't over-impressed. For one thing it wasn't a real crocodile and I could see the wires."
On performing in the main hall at Bolton School:
"This required experimenting with being audible above the constant squeal of 800 bottoms shifting on 800 rush-bottomed chairs. Frank Greene was right: if you can't be heard, you can't act onstage."
On summer camp at Stratford:
"I was also convinced that the divinity of Peggy Ashcroft's Imogen for example, bore no relation to my own flat-footed amateur acting and started in my teens to think I might train as a chef or a journalist."
On his long-running relationship with Sean Mathias:
"It was important to us both that our friendship should survive the split. Sean is one of the three most helpful directors I've worked with - alongside Trevor Nunn and Tyrone Guthrie."