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Tom Cruise almost robbed us of Ian McKellen’s Gandalf

Ian McKellen was alarmingly close to turning down Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, and a major reason was the chance to work with Tom Cruise on Mission Impossible.

Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings

Ian McKellen’s Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings is one of the greatest pieces of casting in history, but Tom Cruise, of all people, nearly robbed us of this iconic performance.

Ian McKellen delivers one of the best performances in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Gandalf. But as McKellen explained at a BAFTA event in 2015, it was touch-and-go as to whether he joined The Lord of the Rings cast because he almost accepted a role in Mission: Impossible 2, which would have prevented him from playing our favorite wizard.

“I wasn’t mad keen, it was a year living in New Zealand…a year away from home, with a script that wasn’t quite complete, based on books that I didn’t know about. [I didn’t think it was the] huge, big chance of a lifetime that it turned out to be. I very nearly couldn’t do it because initially I was asked by Tom Cruise to be in Mission: Impossible 2.”

McKellen explains that they refused to show him the whole Mission: Impossible script in case he told people about it, so he said, “I’m sorry I can’t be in your film because I don’t know what it is.” And that his agent said, “You’re turning down the chance to work with Tom Cruise?!” But McKellen ended up choosing a different short king – Peter Jackson.

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Anthony Hopkins ended up playing the part that McKellen was offered in Mission Impossible 2, and it’s only a very small and thankless role. Hopkins was reportedly in the running for Gandalf, so the actors could have swapped, and it would have changed the course of movie history.

But McKellen says that if he had signed up for the Mission: Impossible role, he’d have missed out on both X-Men and The Lord of the Rings – and we’d have been denied a perfect interpretation of one of the best Lord of the Rings characters.

Magneto in X-Men and Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings have both played a massive role in McKellen’s career, with one a classic hero and one an iconic villain. If Gandalf had ended up going to Sean Connery or Hopkins – the character would have been totally different.

We can’t imagine anyone else having the same twinkling eyes while they smoke pipe-weed or having the required gusto when delivering lines such as; “fool of a Took!” McKellen brought warmth and mischief to Gandalf, as well as obviously being very wise and, of course, fierce when faced with the likes of Saruman or the Balrog.