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Faces of Holmes: Gandalf’s Ian McKellen

Faces of Holmes: Gandalf’s Ian McKellen

Mr. Holmes poster

In June, we look forward to the release of the movie Mr. Holmes. Based on Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of The Mind, it stars Ian McKellen as a 93 year old Sherlock Holmes.

Gandalf Ian and coinMcKellen first played the role of the wizard, Gandalf, in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. In 2004, the New Zealand Royal Mint struck a series of 9 cupro-nickel 50 cent pieces featuring the many characters in the film series, including Gandalf. McKellen was quoted extensively in an article by Sean Clark in the November 3, 2005 issue of The Guardian.

In New Zealand, Sir Ian McKellen is quite literally on the money. From this week, the Kiwi 50 cent piece will come engraved with the Queen on one side and Gandalf (as played by McKellen) on the other. It’s part of a set of coins minted to celebrate the success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was entirely shot in New Zealand.

One has the impression that this is an honour which McKellen is happy – indeed slightly tickled – to accept. Even so, he’s not letting it go to his head. While admitting that the Gandalf on the coin is “not unlike the one I played”, the actor insists that the picture is of Tolkien’s wizard, and not of McKellen himself. “I’m very much riding on Gandalf’s bandwagon,” he explains. “I like to think of myself as his agent.”

This is not to say that McKellen is trying to distance himself from the coins. “I do like the idea of them jingling in someone’s pocket, being used to buy …” He pauses to consider what a New Zealander might spend 50 cents on. “A bag of sweets?”

Actually this seems unlikely. Although the Gandalf coins are legal tender, their value as collection pieces is far greater than their face value. So there’s little chance of them ending up in a confectioner’s till. “I gather people let them sit on their mantelpieces, and leave them to their grandchildren,” McKellen says regretfully. “If it were up to me, I’d spend them.” He chuckles, imagining the scene in an Auckland sweet shop. “‘That’ll be a couple of Gandies, please’.”

Certainly the idea of a Lord of the Rings currency system raises all sorts of possibilities. Is a Gandalf, for instance, worth more or less than an Aragorn? “I thought it was just going to be Gandalf, but then I found out there was going to be an Aragorn coin too. So when I heard I was on the 50 cent coin I thought, ‘now hang on…’. I imagined that Frodo would be on the $10. In fact all the characters are on the 50 cent coins. But I suspect,” he adds conspiratorially, “they’ll have to make more Gandalfs …”

If nothing else, the coins are testament to the mushrooming Rings effect on the Kiwi economy (in the form of increased tourism and film production). Referring to the country as “dear New Zealand”, McKellen says that it’s to their credit that they chose to honour such a towering cultural achievement “rather than rugby or …” – he searches for other notable Kiwi activities – “bungee jumping”. After all, he says, it was a New Zealander who “had the belief” to tackle the project, not Hollywood, and “shamefully” not the British, and he compares Peter Jackson to his compatriot Edmund Hillary, for daring “to climb the Everest of The Lord of the Rings”.

Which is all well and good. And yet on the other hand, one can’t wondering if this whole coins business is just a sort of highbrow merchandising campaign – not a million miles from, say, the Happy Meal.

McKellen has no problem with that. Animatedly, he explains that: “Burger King – and I’m happy to advertise this fact – have a glass goblet featuring four of the characters [from the film], which sells for $1.99, and which lights up from underneath, so that even if you’re drinking plain water” – a thing McKellen’s tone of voice suggest he doesn’t advise – “it looks like you’re drinking Campari and soda.” The good knight admits that he owns the full set. He adds that guests at his London home are regularly treated to drinks from the goblets.

Staring out from coins, goblets, T-shirts and posters, Gandalf has become impossible to ignore these days. But if there is a downside to this success, McKellen appears to have sidestepped it. As the wizard’s agent on earth, he’s philosophical about the dangers of becoming exclusively identified with this one role, despite a long and distinguished career on stage and screen.

“Do I mind being associated with him? Of course not. Do I mind that more people know of me as Gandalf than for my other work? It’s inevitable. Most of my work is done in the theatre, and you simply can’t get that many people into a theatre.” Instead, the actor insists he’s happy to be reaching a wider audience, and hopes that people may be led to his other work. “And I’m still working. It’s not the end.”

Nor is it necessarily the end for Gandalf, as McKellen believes that an adaptation of Tolkien’s earlier book The Hobbit might be a good idea. “I’ve suggested to Peter Jackson that a TV version might be possible, perhaps to tell the entire story. You couldn’t do that on film, but you could have hour long episodes on TV throughout the year.” This, however, seems reasonably far off. McKellen explains that the rights to a filmed version of the Hobbit are held by two separate companies and that until they decide whether to use them “there’s no point in an actor speculating about it.”

But would he play Gandalf in a Hobbit adapation? McKellen says it would depend on the script, but he’s not ruling it out. “I’m not saying I would definitely refuse … even if they put me on another coin.”

Pleased to be back on message, McKellen starts once more to expatiate enthusiastically upon the magnificence of the coins. He boasts that interested parties can find pictures of them on his website, before suddenly pausing to wonder if he may have “jumped the gun” in posting the pictures earlier than the Royal Mint. If he has, I warn him, there’ll be hell to pay.

“To pay!” he shouts, seizing hold of this monetary metaphor with relish. “There’ll be hell … to pay! To you, sir, that’ll be two Gandies!”

2004 NZ Gandalf 50 cents

Gandalf the Wizard – 2004 50 cents

31.75mm, Cupro-Nickel, 13.61 grams

New Zealand issued another series of coins for The Hobbit films, starting in 2012.  We discussed those coins that feature the characters played by Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch of the BBC series Sherlock here. Three coins, in this series of coins, features McKellen’s Gandalf character.

2012 NZ Gandalf and Radagast $1

Radagast and Gandalf –  2012 $1

39 mm, Gold colored Aluminum / Zinc / Bronze, Round, milled edge, unlimited mintage

2012 NZ Gandalf $1 Silver

The Wizard Gandalf – 2012 $1

40 mm, 1 troy oz. .999 sterling silver, Round, milled edge, 1,000 minted

2012 NZ Gandalf $10 Gold

The Wizard Gandalf – 2012 $10

38.94 mm, 1 troy oz. .9999 gold, Round, milled edge, 1,000 minted

In a presentation case with numbered certificate of authenticity

Below we have the first trailer for the Mr. Holmes film.

Thanks to the 7th Garrideb, Bob Fritsch, for sharing the link to the movie trailer.

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