McKellen was born during World War II, and has indicated that this had some impact on him. In an interview with gay newsmagazine The Advocate (December 25, 2001), when an interviewer remarked that he seemed quite calm in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attack, he said: "Well, darling, you forget -- I slept under a steel plate [during the Battle of Britain] until I was 4 years old."
He is known both for his professionalism and his ready wit, as evidence by the quip above.
His father was a lay preacher, and both of his grandfathers were preachers as well. His home environment was strongly Christian, but of a nonorthodox bent. "My upbringing was of low non-conformist Christians who felt that you led the Christian life in part by behaving in a Christian manner to everybody you met".
When he was 12, his mother died. His father died while he was 24.
When he came out of the closet to his family, he came out to his stepmother, who was a Quaker. "Not only was she not fazed, but as a member of a society which declared its indifference to people's sexuality years back, I think she was just glad for my sake that I wasn't lying anymore".
His acting career started while he was still a young boy.
He and his first lover, Brian Taylor, began their relationship in 1964. It was a relationship that was to last for 8 years, ending in 1972. They lived in London, where McKellen continued to pursue his career as an actor.
McKellen's talents won him successively more important and visible parts, until eventually in 1980 he won the role of Salieri in the Broadway production of Amadeus in 1980. He was awarded the Tony Award for his performance, the most prestigious award given to actors in live theater in the United States.
In 1978 he met his second lover, Sean Mathias, at the Edinburgh festival. According to Mathias, the love affair was tempestuous, with conflicts over McKellen's successful career vs. Mathias' somewhat less so. Mathias said that "[i]n those days, the world was far more homophobic, and me being the young, pretty boy -- people wouldn't take me seriously as an actor, being Ian's boyfriend". Mathias was 22 when they met; McKellen 39. However, Mathias also says McKellen "did nothing but help me [in my career]".
McKellen starred in Bent on Broadway, a play about homosexuals in Nazi death camps starting in 1979. Despite his role in this groundbreaking play which brought to public view for the first time in a widespread way the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany, McKellen was not yet out publicly. At first, he was unsure whether he dared to take the role. "[A]s impressed as I was by it, I thought My God! Do I dare be in this? And Sean read it and said, 'Well you have to do it'", he said.
Bent proved to be of great significance to McKellen. Since starring in the original Broadway production of Bent, he has been involved in two other productions of the play. He directed the revival at the National Theater in London, 1990, and also directed the movie version which was released in 1997.
While McKellen was always out to his co-actors, his public persona was another matter. It wasn't until 1988 that he came put in a really public way. In that year, a controversial law was under consideration in the United Kingdom called Section 28 which proposed to ban any discussion of homosexuality in U.K. schools. McKellen became active in fighting the proposed law, and declared himself gay during a debate that aired on the BBC. "My own participating in that campaign was a focus for people [to] take comfort that if Ian McKellen was on board for this, perhaps it would be all right for other people to be as well, gay and straight", he said. Section 28 was, however enacted and is still on the books, and McKellen continues to fight for its repeal. He has criticized British Prime Minister Tony Blair for failing to concern himself with the issue.
At that time, McKellen's ten year relationship with Mathis had also ended, and he has stated that being free of the additional concern of what effect his coming out would have on his partner's career made the choice easier, as did the advice and support of his friends, among them noted gay author Armistead Maupin.
Also in 1994, he made a bit of a splash at the closing ceremony of the Gay Games, where he stood before a crowd of gay atheletes and their supporters and fans to say "I'm Sir Ian McKellen, but you can call me Sereena." If he wasn't fully out of the closet before, he certainly was then.
McKellen has continued up to the present to be very active in gay rights efforts. He is a co-founder of the Stonewall Lobby Group, a gay rights lobby in England. The group is named for the Stonewall riots.
His credits include:
Quotes used in this article are from an interview with Sir Ian done by The Advocate, December 11, 2001.