McKellen, of course, made iconic the cinematic version of Gandalf with his portrayal of the wizard in the three Lord of the Rings films. The character plays a huge role in the original J.R.R. Tolkien text for The Hobbit and, with McKellen aboard, news of Christopher Lee and Ian Holm signing on to reprise their parts as Saruman and an older Bilbo Baggins, respectively, is expected to follow.
UPDATE: Ian McKellen has updated his official site with the following statement:
All I had to decide was what to do with the time that is given me.
Im 71 and fit: though at my age who knows what accident is ’round the next corner? For a year or more, I have been arranging my professional commitments around the possibility of The Hobbit films starting at almost anytime. We brought the Waiting for Godot tour of Australia to New Zealand early 2010, assuming I would stay on to start shooting soon after. Then there was yet another delay: but in Wellington I met with Guillermo del Toro and later read his script for Part One, written with the LOTR writing team. It was true to the style, the fun and the romance of the trilogy.
When Peter Jackson, already producing, resumed the directors chair, he kept me in touch with developments. A second screenplay was sent over, on the understanding that I would not talk about what I read in it.
After the ruckus over trade union expectations and unlikely rumours of filming outside New Zealand, suddenly crucial casting was announced, plus a start date in February 2011. Martin Freeman as Bilbo sounds perfect. As my agent continued to negotiate with Warner Brothers, I kept wondering was Gandalf what I most wanted to do, more than a new play for instance or indeed a new part? Sequels arent necessarily as rewarding to act in as their originals.
Could I let Gandalf go? Would anyone else care if I did? Elsewhere, does anyone care that Michael Gambon was not the first to play Dumbledore?
The deciding negotiation was not about money but about dates. Gandalf is needed on set over the next 18 months but with sizeable breaks when I can work on other projects. My worry that I could not easily escape from Middle Earth was lifted.
I am happy to say I start filming in Wellington on February 21 2011.
–Ian McKellen, London, January 2011