Top 10 Ian McKellen Performances

Credits: Ashley Bowman Sean Harris
Written by JJ Heaton He’s taken on the works of Shakespeare, Tolkien and the Marvel Universe, all with grace and gravitas. Welcome to WatchMojo UK, and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the Top 10 Ian McKellen Performances. For this list, we’re ranking Sir Ian McKellen’s finest film and TV work - and there’s a lot to choose from. Special thanks to our users ibriers 1, JosephT, Ben Alviani, Deathmatch1959, Marcus Kyle Cotton, Rockcroc2000, TimeQueenOfRome and Bunny Speed for submitting the idea on our interactive suggestion tool: WatchMojo.comsuggest
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Top 10 Ian McKellen Performances


He’s taken on the works of Shakespeare, Tolkien and the Marvel Universe, all with grace and gravitas. Welcome to WatchMojo UK, and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the Top 10 Ian McKellen Performances.

For this list, we’re ranking Sir Ian McKellen’s finest film and TV work - and there’s a lot to choose from.

#10: Sir Leigh Teabing
“The Da Vinci Code” (2006)

The film adaptations of Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series of mystery novels forever divide opinion, but McKellen’s performance as the Holy Grail expert Sir Leigh Teabing is one of the bright spots in the first instalment. Making even the most improbable theories seem plausible with his dignified delivery, the actor’s presence alone brings a sense of credibility, forcing viewers to listen up - and making the film that much more enjoyable for fans.

#9: Freddie Thornhill
“Vicious” (2013-16)

In this short-lived ITV sitcom, McKellen plays an aging, struggling actor living in London with his longtime partner Stuart, played by Derek Jacobi. Freddie is a vain and self-important man, often exaggerating his accomplishments and fame, and his relationship with Stuart is always tumultuous. However, Mckellen’s character also has a softer side, shown especially through his fatherly relationship with young neighbour, Ash. “Vicious” didn’t last long, but it was a great opportunity to see McKellen let loose with some light laughs and comedy.

#8: James Whale
“Gods and Monsters” (1998)

Playing the real-life director of films including “Frankenstein” and “The Invisible Man”, this period drama netted McKellen an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and deservedly so. Playing the filmmaker during the last days of his life, it depicts Whale as a depressed man haunted by his past, whilst also engaging in a fraught friendship with his gardener Clayton. Though the finer details of the story are fictionalised, there is a lot of truth to the movie, and McKellen’s performance helps shine a spotlight on this often-forgotten legend of horror cinema.

#7: John Profumo
“Scandal” (1989)

The Profumo affair was one of the biggest scandals in modern British politics, and McKellen brings one of its key players to life in this 1989 drama. As War Secretary to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, McKellen’s Profumo finds himself in a brief but damaging affair with aspiring model Christine Keeler, leading to the implosion of his career and the conservative government. Though a supporting player to John Hurt and Joanne Whalley, McKellen damn near steals the whole film - no doubt he would have, had he a higher profile at the time.

#6: Sherlock Holmes
“Mr. Holmes” (2015)

Portraying a character as iconic as Sherlock Holmes and keeping it fresh is certainly a challenge, but in this film examining the detective’s twilight years, McKellen makes the character his own. McKellen’s Holmes is a kind but distant man struggling to reconcile with or even remember his past. And, as we track the degradation of such a brilliant mind through the story’s fractured narrative, the actor is able to deconstruct the famed detective - giving us a truly unique portrayal.

#5: King Lear
“King Lear” (2008)

As much as we love McKellen at the movies, he’ll always be a stage actor first, but that doesn’t mean that those performances can’t be captured on film. The actor trod the boards to play King Lear, in a production which was filmed for TV, and shown on Channel 4 and PBS. Giving a powerful and tragic performance, as you’d expect, McKellen proves his Shakespearian heart. He even went nude for the role, but PBS insisted he keep his trousers on for television.

#4: Himself
“Extras” (2005-07)

Following in the footsteps of his longtime compatriot Patrick Stewart, McKellen made a standout appearance on this award-winning Ricky Gervais sitcom. Gervais’ Andy is cast opposite the respected actor in a play about a homosexual romance, leading to some uncomfortable moments between the two. Of course, McKellen provides the highlight, explaining to Andy his thoughts on acting, for one of the thespian’s most quotable moments.

#3: Richard III
“Richard III” (1995)

As we’ve seen, McKellen makes Shakespeare look easy. But, this film adaptation sees him not only take a starring role, but also co-write and serve as an executive producer. His performance as the conniving Duke of Gloucester is often cited as his finest work, made even better by the film’s impressive staging and the relocation of the story to the 1930s. Mckellen’s Richard highlights how figures like him still exist in modern society, showing how they can be charming and inviting despite their obvious villainy. The Bard himself would be proud of this one.

#2: Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto
The “X-Men” film series (2000-)

Back in 2000, the first “X-Men” movie paved the way for the countless comic book blockbusters which have followed. And McKellen’s magnetic performance as the radical mutant terrorist was right at the centre of it. Drawing on the racial allegories of the comics, as well as the actor’s own experience with prejudice as a gay man, McKellen’s Magneto is still regarded as one of the genre’s best villains - laying glorious groundwork for Michael Fassbender’s later role as the Master of Magnetism.

#1: Gandalf
“The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” series (2001-03, 2012-14)

McKellen hadn’t even read “The Lord of the Rings” when Peter Jackson offered him the role of the famous wizard, but after accepting the part he immersed himself in Tolkien’s world. Imbuing the role of Gandalf with a kind but wise and commanding demeanour, easily shifting from gentle mentor to formidable paragon of light, it’s no wonder fans around the world fell in love with this character across two cinematic trilogies. Whether grey or white, Ian McKellen’s Gandalf is an undisputed cinematic icon.
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