I wouldn’t want to dismiss several generations of Shakespearean actors with a single statement, so let me see if I can phrase this just right: we’re getting to a point where it just doesn’t feel like there are as many greats as there used to be. That’s not to say that there aren’t greats, of course, but…well, surely you know what I mean. Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson…all are gone, and for all the talents that have arisen in the intervening years, few are quite as immediately associated with the Bard in the same way, where you hear their name and immediately say, “Oh, yes, of course, he’s the Shakespearean actor.”

With that said, however, it’s fair to say that Sir Ian McKellen falls into the category of those who, despite roles ranging from Gandalf and Magneto to James Whale and Kurt Dussander, is still very much recognized as a Shakespearean actor. Granted, the reputation is probably significantly greater in the UK, where he’s done television productions where he’s played the title roles in “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” and “Richard III,” as well as Iago in “Othello,” but after his unique cinematic interpretation of “Richard III,” in which he co-starred with Robert Downey, Jr., and Annette Bening, even Americans began to associate him with Shakespeare.

As such, the idea of seeing McKellen appearing as King Lear in an upcoming “Great Performances” production is one that intrigues me considerably, particularly after experiencing his enthusiasm for the play firsthand.

“King Lear” has fascinated McKellen throughout his acting career, particularly because of the wide variety of ages amongst its characters. “As a young man, I was very intrigued by the part of Edgar, which I played,” he said. “And there are a lot of young people in ‘King Lear’ that a young audience could identify with, good and bad. Then there are a lot of good middle-aged characters. But what’s perhaps special about ‘King Lear,’ as opposed to a ‘Hamlet,’ is that the central part is for an old person. And so if, like me, you’ve worked your way through Shakespeare as an actor, you know, waiting up there is ‘King Lear’ and, beyond him, a shadowy Prospero, maybe and, oh, dear, a Falstaff too.

“I’ve been in the play twice before as Edgar and as Kent. I’d seen what it cost the person — the
actors playing King Lear: Brian Cox, on one occasion, giving his all a hundred percent every night and discovering in himself depths and heights that he hasn’t necessarily had to use in any other part. And the late Robert Addison played King Lear, when I played Edgar, in his mid-60s and frail at the end of the evening because the performance had taken so much out of him. So I suppose it’s the challenge. It’s the expectation that it will complete your journey through Shakespeare.”

With that said, however, McKellen admitted that he hadn’t actually been spending his career with a burning desire to play the role of King Lear.

“I thought it was beyond me,” he said, though surely everyone in the audience scoffed at such a suggestion. (Well, I did, anyway.) “You cannot, however ready you think you might be for it, with a wealth of experience behind you doing other Shakespeare plays, there’s no point in doing it unless you’re going to have a wonderful director and a wonderful cast around you, because ‘King Lear’ is not a one-man show. And I was lucky on both counts.”

You may or may not remember that the topic of McKellen’s “Lear” came up during the July press tour, when PBS President Paula Kerger hemmed and hawed about whether or not Sir Ian’s notorious nude scene would be shown on public television. (“I haven’t actually seen the final version yet…it’s all what the FCC will allow…”) Finally, we were able to ask McKellen directly about the status of his bits in the final version.

“I think it’s discreetly avoided,” he said, after acknowledging that he knew full well the topic would come up. “There might be some PBS rule I don’t know about, or it may have been thought, as I thought it was in theater, often distracting. Inevitably, if a man or woman takes his clothes off on stage, the eyes are going to go to those parts that are normally hidden, and at that moment there may be something of import which the scene is about is lost. If it’s a distraction of that sort, it’s not worth the candle, but it’s quite clear that Shakespeare intends Lear to, at least, start removing his clothes. Whether he does or does not do that completely, I think, is not resolved in the TV version. There were some places — I think Singapore was one — where it was not allowed for me to take my clothes off completely. It was all right to have a blinding on the stage, someone’s eyes removed, but it was inappropriate to show a penis.”

Lastly, given my premise at the beginning of this piece, I must make note of the fun Sir Ian had the expense of a poor writer who misspoke and asked if, when people approach him on the street, they reference his Shakespearean work or if they bring up “Lord of the Flies.”

“Well, if they say ‘Lord of the Flies,’ I put them right,” said McKellen, with a grin. “They often say, ‘Hi, Dumbledore,’ and I say, ‘No, no, that’s Mike Gambon. I play the real wizard. The best wizard.’ Of course, there’s a confusion because Ms. Rowling has announced that Dumbledore is gay, hasn’t she? So maybe that’s the confusion. Whether Gandalf was gay is another matter. His wife is never mentioned, and he’s 7,000 years old. He must have had some experience with sex.”

“Great Performances: King Lear” premieres on PBS on March 25th.