Ian McKellen was never a household name until “Lord Of The Rings”. That’s what he claims. The whole world knows him because of “X-Men” and that other trilogy. And, of course, The DaVinci Code”, which I still haven’t watched, even though I own the dvd. Well, ya see, it was a gift…anyway, let me tell you about my first encounter with the great Sir Ian McKellen. I was in college, back in the long-distant 70’s, and I was mentored by a great, lovely, very funny man by the name of Michael Kelly. He was in his late fifties at the time, knew lots of amazing people( I once was invited to a barbecue party in his backyard and arrived to find Leonard Bernstein and Andres Segovia in attendance. Gore Vidal dedicated one of his early novels to him). Anyway, I spent a lot of wonderful evenings in Michael’s living room, where he would turn me on to things I had absolutely no knowledge of. Things like Wagner’s “Parsifal”, Beatrice Lilly’s recording of “There are Fairies at the Bottom Of My Garden”, and the wonders of Public Television, which, at the time, in northern New Jersey, was just referred to as Channel 13. The “educational” channel. And in 1975, America was just discovering Monty Python. I was so impressed, I memorized the entire Python “parrot on the telly” sketch and could repeat it verbatim. Still can.
But I digress. In 1975, PBS(as it’s now known) ran a BBC filmed production of Christopher Marlowe’s “Edward II” one night, and after some great black hash and a superb bottle of red, we sat and watched. Mr. Kelly, a stellar host, explained that Marlowe was a contemporary of Shakespeare’s and was even thought to have written some of his best plays, because Shakespeare may not have been educated enough to have written them himself. I was a Drama major, and I argued that Shakespeare wrote all of his plays, how dare anyone think otherwise. Michael wisely told me of course I was right, but to keep an open mind, because someday, I might think otherwise. Anyway, that night, I watched this amazing actor I had never heard of nor seen before, play Marlowe’s doomed hero and by the end, I was so moved..so amazed by what this guy had accomplished in playing this unplayable role…and I asked Michael, “Who was that?”, to which Michael replied, “Another godd%$$@#@ British actor who’s better than anyone we’ve got here”. I never forgot that. And it wasn’t until years later, when I saw the same actor play Salieri in the original Broadway production of “Amadeus”, that I realized it was the same great actor. His name was, and is, Ian McKellen.
Sadly, my mentor Michael Kelly is gone. Had a heart attack on an international flight somewhere between NY and London and was dead by the time the plane landed. But Ian McKellen can be seen onstage in Brooklyn at BAM in the most amazing production of “King Lear” I’ve ever seen, until Sept. 30th. They say it’s sold out, but don’t let that stop you. You MUST see this production! After New York, it travels around the country, so check your local listings, as they say, to catch it. McKellen is an amazing actor; every gesture,every move,every tic is to serve the text. Whether Shakespeare wrote it or not matters not, this production, directed by Trevor Nunn, is dark, apocalyptic, decayed and staffed by some wondrous British actors and actresses, but it is helmed by the incredible Mr. McKellen, whose performance is a master class in acting. Every hopeful initiate who arrives in NYC with the thought of becoming a working actor should be handed a tape of this performance and told, “Look! When you can do THIS, you may call yourself an Actor!” It’s that good.
It is humbling to think I first saw Mr. McKellen some 32 years ago. It is thrilling to know that both of us are still going strong-I’ve got the seemingly impossible job of keeping every person who walks into Babbo happy…Mr. McKellen only needs to satisfy the whole world. And if there’s ever any doubt of his prowess-rent “And The Band Plays On” some night…I defy you to not break down.
Ian McKellen-68 years young and one of the greatest actors alive. And yes, I do believe Shakespeare wrote all his own plays. And he’d be thrilled to see what our best actors do with them.