I really enjoy the Harry Potter films, but I feel like they never quite got Dumbledore right. Richard Harris, who played the character in the first two films, was a little too sleepy in the part. While he got Dumbledore’s innate kindness and gentle spirit, you never got the sense of ferocity that could put fear in the heart of Voldemort. After Harris died in 2002, the role went to Michael Gambon, who was fiery, but never figured out the character’s softer side. I cringe every time he yells at Hogwarts students to settle down because it diminishes the respect that Dumbledore automatically commands.
But it turns out that Gambon wasn’t the only choice for the part. Speaking to the BBC [via Variety], Ian McKellen reveals that he received a phone call about the role after Harris passed away. However, before his death, Harris had insulted McKellen as well as fellow actors Derek Jacobi and Kenneth Branagh, saying, “these guys [are] technically brilliant, but passionless.”
McKellen remembered that comment (which he calls “Nonsense”), and said:
“When they called me up and said would I be interested in being in the ‘Harry Potter’ films, they didn’t say in what part,” McKellen said. “I worked out what they were thinking, and I couldn’t … I couldn’t take over the part from an actor who I’d known didn’t approve of me.”
“You mean you could’ve been Dumbledore?” interviewer Stephen Sackur asked.
“Well, sometimes, when I see the posters of Mike Gambon, the actor who gloriously plays Dumbledore, I think sometimes it is me,” McKellen replied with a laugh.
I think McKellen is a tremendous actor, and I would have loved to see him take on the role, not only to differentiate it from Gandalf, but because I think he could have struck the balance that both Harris and Gambon missed.