Sir Ian McKellen is a talented man. He has the ability to grace stage and screen with ease and is one of the best actors of his generation, switching effortlessly between blockbuster movies, independent films, TV series and a variety of stage roles. But he is also a crusader in terms of gay rights, being one of the founder members of Stonewall, actively campaigning for equality and gay rights and is a prominent and prevalent presence at Pride events around the world. He starred in the first gay sitcom involving two men living together, has achieved lifelong ambitions performing as a pantomime dame and treading the cobbles on Coronation Street. He even appeared in the music video for Heart by the Pet Shop Boys.

I have met Sir Ian on a couple of occasions and he is one of the nicest people I have ever had the pleasure to talk to. When I worked with a LGBT Youth Group, we took them on a trip to London Pride. Walking just behind us in the march was Sir Ian McKellen. We slowed our pace slightly, and soon found ourselves marching alongside the man himself. He was gracious and friendly and spent some time talking to the young people in our group and posed for photographs with them. One of them even tugged on my sleeve and whispered to me “Bloody hell – Gandalf’s gay!” But that was the impact of his kindness and his humanity – he provided those young people with an empowering experience of their first Pride that they will never forget.

So to celebrate his 75th birthday, here are 6 of his best performances and films.

Gods & Monsters
Gods and Monsters tells the true story of James Whale, the gay Hollywood director of Universal Picture’s Frankenstein. Living in his Hollywood mansion, Whale develops an uneasy and obsessive relationship with his straight, muscular gardener (played by Brendon Frasier). The film is rich in character development and an interesting period piece on the way in which gay men in Hollywood in the 1930’s conducted their lives.

Tales of the City
Appearing in 3 episodes of the cult TV adaptation of Armistead Maupins popular literary series, McKellen appears as Archibald Anson Gidde. The series follows the lives, loves and adventures of friends, Mouse, Mary Ann and their eccentric landlady, Mrs Madragil. Set in 1970’s San Fransisco, the series deals with the free loving of both the straight and gay community.

Ian McKellen plays the title role in this made for TV movie, which was originally show on the opening night of Channel 4 in 1982. McKellan puts in a genuine and touching performance as a young man with learning disabilities whose parents spend the majority of his youth trying to get him to “be normal”. As his parents die, he finds himself at the mercy of social services bureaucracy who place him in an institution, where he experiences the inhumanity of both his fellow inmates and the staff. A truly heart-breaking film.

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The X-Men Franchise
McKellen plays Magneto, a mutant with the ability to create and control magnetic fields. He is the anti-hero of the piece, as he attempts to prevent the mutant population from being persecuted in the same way that his Jewish family were in the concentration camps. Whilst his motives are genuine, his methods are not always the same. The X-Men films are action packed, have great special effects and continue to thrill audiences. X-Men – Days of Future Past has just been released at the cinema, further cementing the franchise’s popularity.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
The Lord of the Rings films are already considered modern classics, with the final instalment – The Return of the King holding the joint record for the most Oscars won by a film (11 in total). The story follows the battle between good and evil as a young hobbit travels across Middle Earth to destroy a mystical ring. McKellen plays Gandalf, a kind, worldly wise and powerful wizard who sets the Hobbits off on their journey and who goes on the battle evil across the land. These films are beautifully put together, with high quality production values, lavish costumes and are a perfect example of epic storytelling.

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Apt Pupil
Based on the Stephen King novella of the same name, in this thriller, McKellen plays a Nazi war criminal, Dussander, hiding in suburban America, whose past is uncovered by a high school student, Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro), a young man who has an unhealthy interest in the atrocities conducted by the Nazi’s during the second world war. Bowden blackmails Dussander, threatening to turn him in to the police, but Dussander blackmails Bodwen about exposing his dalliances with Nazism. Their dark relation becomes increasingly menacing, as they bring out the worst in each other leading to murder. Sadomasochism, homophobia and homoeroticism are all explored in this film, which has a dark, disturbing edge to it.

About the author: Paul Szabo
In between visits to the theatre, watching films, photography, walking, scuba diving and singing (badly); Paul writes for TheGayUK.