McKellen had taken film roles throughout his career—beginning in 1969 with his role of George Matthews in A Touch of Love, and his first leading role was in 1980 as D.H.Lawrence in Priest of Love, but it was not until the 1990s that he became more widely recognised in this medium, through several roles in blockbuster Hollywood films.
In 1993, McKellen had a supporting role as a South African tycoon in the critically acclaimed Six Degrees of Separation, in which he starred with Stockard Channing, Donald Sutherland, and Will Smith. In the same year, he appeared in minor roles in the television miniseries Tales of the City (based on the novel by his friend Armistead Maupin) and the film Last Action Hero, in which he played Death.
In 1993, he also appeared in the television film And the Band Played On, about the discovery of the AIDS virus, for which McKellen won a CableACE Award for Supporting Actor in a Movie or Miniseries and was nominated for the Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie. In 1995, he played the title role in Richard III, which transported the setting into an alternative 1930s in which England is ruled by fascists. The film was a critical success. McKellen co-produced and co-wrote the film, adapting the play for the screen based on a stage production of Shakespeare’s play directed by Richard Eyre for the Royal National Theatre, in which McKellen had appeared. As executive producer he returned his £50,000 fee to complete the filming of the final battle. In his review of the film, Washington Post film critic Hal Hinson, called McKellen’s performance a “lethally flamboyant incarnation”, and said his “florid mastery … dominates everything”. His performance in the title role garnered best actor nominations for the BAFTA Award and Golden Globe, and won the European Film Award for Best Actor. His screenplay was nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
McKellen at the premiere of The Return of the King in Wellington, New Zealand, 1 December 2003.
His appeared in the modestly acclaimed film Apt Pupil, which was based on a story by Stephen King. McKellen portrayed an old Nazi officer, living under a false name in the U.S., who was befriended by a curious teenager (Brad Renfro) who threatened to expose him unless he told his story in detail. He was subsequently nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the 1998 film Gods and Monsters, wherein he played James Whale, the director of Show Boat (1936) and Frankenstein.
McKellen re-teamed with Bryan Singer to play the comic book supervillain Magneto in X-Men and its sequels X2: X-Men United and X-Men: The Last Stand. While filming X-Men McKellen was cast as the wizard Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s three-film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings (consisting of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King). He received honors from the Screen Actors Guild for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture for his work in The Fellowship of the Ring, and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for the same role. He also voiced Gandalf in the video game adaptions of the film trilogy as well as in The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age. On 10 January 2011 it was officially confirmed that Mckellen would reprise the role of Gandalf in the three-part film adaptation of The Hobbit.
On 16 March 2002, he was the host on Saturday Night Live. In 2003, McKellen made a guest appearance as himself on the American cartoon show The Simpsons, in a special British-themed episode entitled “The Regina Monologues”, along with Tony Blair and J. K. Rowling. In April and May 2005, he played the role of Mel Hutchwright in Granada Television’s long running soap opera, Coronation Street, fulfilling a lifelong ambition. He narrated Richard Bell’s film Eighteen, as a grandfather who leaves his World War II memoirs on audio-cassette for his teenage grandson.
McKellen has appeared in limited release films, such as Emile (which was shot in three weeks following the X2 shoot), Neverwas and Asylum. He appeared as Sir Leigh Teabing in The Da Vinci Code. During a 17 May 2006 interview on The Today Show with the Da Vinci Code cast and director, Matt Lauer posed a question to the group about how they would have felt if the film had borne a prominent disclaimer that it is a work of fiction, as some religious groups wanted. McKellen responded, “I’ve often thought the Bible should have a disclaimer in the front saying ‘This is fiction.’ I mean, walking on water? It takes… an act of faith. And I have faith in this movie — not that it’s true, not that it’s factual, but that it’s a jolly good story.” He continued, “And I think audiences are clever enough and bright enough to separate out fact and fiction, and discuss the thing when they’ve seen it”. McKellen appeared in the 2006 series of Ricky Gervais’ comedy series Extras, where he played himself directing Gervais’ character Andy Millman in a play about gay lovers. McKellen received a 2007 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor – Comedy Series nomination for his performance. In 2009 he portrayed Number Two in The Prisoner, a remake of the 1967 cult series The Prisoner. He will reprise his role as Magneto in X-Men: Days of Future Past, set for release in July 2014; he will share this role with Michael Fassbender, who played a younger version of the character in 2011’s X-Men: First Class.