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Ian McKellen Has A Condition To Return As Gandalf For Lord Of The Rings & It's Big

When people think of Robert Downey Jr., they picture Iron Man. When they hear the name Daniel Radcliffe, it summons Harry Potter. The name Mark Hamill evokes images of Luke Skywalker — and Sir Ian McKellen? That is a title that conjures images of everyone's favorite Middle-earth Wizard, Gandalf.

In early May, Warner Bros. Discovery announced a new addition to the on-screen Middle-earth canon: "The Hunt for Gollum." The "Lord of the Rings" prequel story could easily incorporate several characters from Peter Jackson's iconic trilogy. Andy Serkis' Gollum is already a lock. It's easy to imagine Viggo Mortensen returning to play Aragorn. And Gandalf? He's in the story — and McKellen is ready to reprise the role on one condition, which he summed up in three words in an interview for The Times: "If I'm alive."

McKellen is 85 as of this writing. The new movie (one of multiple Middle-earth full-length feature films in production at Warner Bros.) is planned for a 2026 release. The average life expectancy of a male in the U.K. is under 79 years. McKellen's hesitations are well warranted.

There's another reason why a return to the Wizard's cloak and staff could be implausible — McKellen hasn't been offered the job. At least, not yet. Things are very early in development, and while the British actor has heard that Gandalf will feature in the film, there is no offer on the table. In McKellen's own words, "There is no script, there is no offer, there is no plan."

McKellen has returned to Middle-earth before

If he was offered a part as Gandalf in "The Hunt for Gollum," it wouldn't be Ian McKellen's first return to Middle-earth. The actor donned the pointy hat and weathered robes over a decade ago when Peter Jackson and company brought the band back together to create the "Hobbit" trilogy. McKellen's character features heavily in that story as he prods Martin Freeman's Bilbo Baggins out of Bag End and across Northern Middle-earth in search of adventure.

It's interesting to note that McKellen's counterpart in that story, Saruman, was also played by the returning (and similarly aging) Sir Christopher Lee. Lee died in 2015, one of just a handful of "The Lord of the Rings" actors who had passed away by that time. But McKellen? He just kept on going. 

Along with an otherwise busy career, he even found time to express interest in another return to Middle-earth in Amazon Studios' "The Rings of Power" series. In an interview before Season 1 came out, McKellen explained how he felt. "I haven't said yes because I haven't been asked," he said, echoing his "Hunt for Gollum" comments.

He added that Gandalf was clearly his role and no other man's by saying, "But are you suggesting that someone else is going to play it?" (For the record, the jury is still out if Daniel Weyman's "The Stranger" character in "The Rings of Power" is, indeed, Gandalf or not.) Even at that time, McKellen was already hedging his bets against criticism that he was too old for the part. "Gandalf is over 7,000 years old, so I'm not too old [yet]," he warned.

How does Gandalf factor into The Hunt for Gollum story?

Gandalf is one of those characters that is always hanging around on the edge of every Third Age J.R.R. Tolkien story. He's never the main character, but he's always close by. In "The Hobbit," this puts him in the center of the action for all of the first half and a good chunk of the second half of the story. He's involved in nearly all of "The Lord of the Rings" too. What about "The Hunt for Gollum," though?

Based on the source material, that story will likely trace Sméagol's path from when Bilbo leaves him in "The Hobbit" until he starts following the Fellowship of the Ring in Moria in the book and movie by the same name. In Jackson's trilogy, we get a quick synopsis of that time when we see Gollum being tortured and forced to give up information about "The Shire" and "Baggins," but that's about it. In reality, Gollum travels far and wide and makes plenty of enemies along with some friends (hello, Shelob). He's also captured more than once, first by Sauron and then by Aragorn.

The latter catches him after he and Gandalf decide to hunt for the miserable wretch. The Wizard is running around Middle-earth at the time, and he shows up a bit early in the story and then more toward the end. There's one sequence, in particular, where he interrogates and even threatens to torture Gollum to extract information from him. It's a significant role, and it makes sense that Ian McKellen has heard Gandalf is already confirmed to be in the feature. The question is, will the actor reprise the role or will it be someone else?