It’s intriguing to think that we came remarkably close to having a Gandalf not portrayed by Ian McKellen in The Lord of the Rings, and it was none other than Tom Cruise who could have been the catalyst for this alternate reality. McKellen’s initial hesitation to commit to a year of filming in New Zealand, along with scheduling conflicts tied to the X-Men franchise, created a precarious situation. Additionally, the opportunity to take on a role in Mission: Impossible 2 nearly swayed him away from becoming our beloved wizard.
Ian McKellen’s portrayal of Gandalf stands as one of the definitive performances in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, making it nearly inconceivable to imagine anyone else in the role. Yet, as McKellen candidly revealed at a BAFTA event in 2015, the decision to join the cast was far from certain.
He recollected, “I wasn’t mad keen, it was a year living in New Zealand…a year away from home, with a script that wasn’t quite complete, based on books that I didn’t know about. [I didn’t think it was the] huge, big chance of a lifetime that it turned out to be. I very nearly couldn’t do it because initially I was asked by Tom Cruise to be in Mission: Impossible 2.”
McKellen further explained that he was denied access to the entire Mission: Impossible script out of fear he might disclose its details, leading him to decline the offer, citing, “I’m sorry I can’t be in your film because I don’t know what it is.” His agent’s incredulous response was, “You’re turning down the chance to work with Tom Cruise?!” Ultimately, McKellen opted to collaborate with another luminary figure – Peter Jackson.
Although Anthony Hopkins eventually assumed a relatively minor role in Mission: Impossible 2, McKellen maintains that had he accepted, it would have precluded him from both X-Men and The Lord of the Rings. This would have resulted in the absence of his flawless interpretation of one of the most cherished characters in the Lord of the Rings universe.
It’s truly challenging to envision anyone else embodying the same twinkle in their eyes as they enjoy pipe-weed, or possessing the requisite gravitas when delivering iconic lines such as “fool of a Took!” McKellen infused Gandalf with a blend of warmth, mischief, wisdom, and unwavering strength when facing formidable foes like Saruman or the Balrog, leaving an indelible mark on cinematic history.