Ian McKellen Was Not the First Choice for Gandalf in Lord of the Rings


The Big Picture

  • According to Ian McKellen, Anthony Hopkins and Sean Connery turned down the role of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings.
  • David Bowie, Christopher Plummer, and Patrick Stewart were also considered for the role.
  • Ian McKellen expressed interest in reprising the role of Gandalf for Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power series.

It’s no secret that Gandalf the Grey (or Gandalf the White, if you prefer) is one of Sir Ian McKellen‘s finest and most memorable roles. However, did you know that the acclaimed actor wasn’t the first choice for the part? It’s a bit of a formidable chunk of lembas bread to swallow, as Ian McKellen’s impeccable performance in Peter Jackson‘s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is second to none. For three epic films, fans everywhere saw the humble Gandalf the Grey transform physically and mentally into the noble Gandalf the White as the Fellowship sought to destroy the dark power of Sauron. Packed to the brim with heart, humor, and all-around badassery, there’s a reason why Gandalf has persevered as one of the all-time great fantasy film characters, and McKellen’s passionate performance is a vital element of that.

Two decades after The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King entered theaters, Ian McKellen still profoundly loves and reveres the role of Gandalf. McKellen even expressed interest in reprising the part at some point in Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power series, despite that show taking place long before the events of the original trilogy. In a 2023 interview with Variety, McKellen expressed his joy and appreciation for the role of a lifetime for what might be the thousandth time. In this instance, though, McKellen fondly remembered some of the names initially considered for the Gandalf role he eventually got:

“I don’t think you’re ever the first choice. I certainly wasn’t the first choice for Gandalf. Tony Hopkins turned it down. Sean Connery certainly did. They’re all coming out of the woodwork now, and I hope they feel silly.”

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

A meek Hobbit from the Shire and eight companions set out on a journey to destroy the powerful One Ring and save Middle-earth from the Dark Lord Sauron.

Release Date
December 19, 2001

178 minutes

Anthony Hopkins Was Reportedly Offered the Role of Gandalf in ‘The Lord of the Rings’

The first of the two actors that McKellen brings up in his interview is “Tony Hopkins,” which is an apparent reference to the two-time Oscar-winning star of Silence of the Lambs and The Father, Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins being a frontrunner choice for The Lord of the Rings trilogy isn’t all that surprising. As iconic as McKellen is in the part and as many great films he starred in at the time, he wasn’t as well-known internationally as Hopkins was during this specific point of their careers. McKellen wouldn’t truly become a household name until the original X-Men film, which was released just a year before The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.


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People who get on the wrong side of Sauron don’t usually have a very long job description…

Anthony Hopkins was already an Oscar winner by the time The Lord of the Rings saga entered production, and his range as an actor makes him an ideal choice on paper. He’s easily able to go to dark and dramatic places when the moment calls for it, but is also able to express an impressive amount of heart and humor when desired. Why Hopkins said no to the part isn’t precisely known, nor was it discussed further by McKellen. At around the same time that The Lord of the Rings trilogy was released, Hopkins would star in two more Hannibal Lecter movies, those being Hannibal and Red Dragon. Hopkins would also eventually get into high fantasy epics as the rogue robot Jimmy in Zack Snyder‘s space opera, Rebel Moon.

Sean Connery Was Also Considered for the Part of Gandalf

An angry Sean Connery as Detective Johnson in 'The Offence.'
Image via United Artists 

“The Grey. Gandalf the Grey.” Odds are we wouldn’t have gotten a line like that should James Bond franchise star Sean Connery have gotten the part of Gandalf, but it sure would have been funny. According to McKellen, Sean Connery “certainly” passed on the part, and given that Connery’s career was already starting to wind down a bit, that checks out. Connery’s last film was the production nightmare that was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and the actor would officially retire in 2006 (he would exit retirement to provide a lead voice-over role in the bizarre Sir Billi, but we’ll just pretend like that never happened).

Unlike Anthony Hopkins, whose reasons for passing on The Lord of the Rings are still a mystery, we have a bit more insight into why Connery said no to playing Gandalf. According to New Line Cinema executive Mark Ordesky, Connery simply didn’t feel a connection to the part or the source material:

“We did make an offer to Connery but he said no. We never got an answer until years later, but apparently he read the material and just didn’t get it.”

Other Actors Almost Cast as Gandalf in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ Trilogy

Anthony Hopkins and Sean Connery are two massive names to be sure, but their temporary involvement is only scratching the surface of the many actors to enter the running to play Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. One of the most surprising names to enter the conversation was musician and Labyrinth star David Bowie, whom casting director Amy Hubbard said was considered for the part in a 2016 interview. Other names to consistently enter the conversation included The Sound of Music star Christopher Plummer and Jurassic Park star Sam Neill.

Funnily enough, another major contender for the part was none other than Captain Picard himself, Sir Patrick Stewart. It’s a funny coincidence, given that McKellen and Stewart would ultimately co-star with each other for several films in the X-Men franchise. It’s also no secret that the two acting legends are close friends in real life, so the idea that they almost played the same role seems rather fitting.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is available to stream on Max in the U.S.

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