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Ian McKellen took nothing for granted.

c.2012 Ian Spelling
Distributed by: The New York Times Syndicate - Reprinted by permission

Sure, every fan of "The Lord of the Rings" (2001-2003) hoped McKellen would return to his Oscar-nominated role as the wizard Gandalf in "The Hobbit," and more than a few quite vociferously insisted that "The Hobbit" could or shouldn't be done without McKellen.

However, as the years passed while "The Hobbit" sat in stasis, McKellen's age, schedule and wanderlust became factors, and when Guillermo del Toro agreed to direct a two-film version of "The Hobbit," he was under no obligation to cast the British actor as Gandalf.

Fortunately it all worked out. McKellen read the script for "The Hobbit" and loved it. Del Toro was planning to retain him, but ultimately departed the project, opening the door for "Rings" master Peter Jackson to settle back into the director's chair. Now "The Hobbit" will be a trilogy, with the first part, "An Unexpected Journey," set to open nationwide on Dec. 14 with McKellen back in Gandalf's robe, beard and wizard's hat.

"In any job there are always pros and cons," McKellen says. "It's fairly rarely a simple matter of, `No, I don't want to do it' or `Yes, I do.' There are all sorts of things involved, particularly with a part I've done before. In one sense that's a little bit off-putting, because I like to be doing something new all the time, and this was going to be 18 months on and off.

"However, this would be going back to a familiar situation," he continues. "I'd always enjoyed, enormously, working with Peter, and I love being in New Zealand. The material is sensational. The fans of Middle-earth just assumed that it'd be the same Gandalf, but I was under no illusions that another couldn't play Gandalf."

None of which means that he liked the idea, though.

"It wouldn't be quite the same," McKellen concludes, "and, frankly, I don't want anyone else playing Gandalf. So there we are."

In "The Lord of the Rings," Gandalf sent a hobbit, Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), eastward on a great quest. In "The Hobbit," which is a prequel to "The Lord of the Rings," he sends Frodo's uncle, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), eastward on a very different quest. Speaking by telephone from his home in London, his voice as authoritative as ever, McKellen stresses that he's up to new and fresh business in "The Hobbit."

"`The Hobbit,' as a novel, is quite different in tone from `Lord of the Rings,'" he says. "`The Hobbit' is an adventure story written for kids, and Tolkien wrote it in the first person. It was very much him introducing young people to the whole idea of Middle-earth. `Lord of the Rings' is something much deeper and all-embracing. The four hobbits are off to save the world, to save civilization, as if they're going off to fight a great world war. The dwarves (in "The Hobbit") aren't doing that. The dwarves are going to try and rescue their homeland, it's true, but they're also after all the gold that the dragon has stolen from them.

"Gandalf's role is to help the dwarves do that," McKellen says, "but, more than in the book, we get a sense of why Gandalf is interested in helping the dwarves. He's already got a sense of a Middle-earth that's beginning to change, that there's something going on, and he can't quite define what. There's danger in the air. In the book he keeps leaving the dwarves and saying, `I'll be back when you need me,' and in the film you find out where he goes."

OK, where does he go?

"He discovers an overall view of how the dwarves' quest fits in with these changes in Middle-earth, which eventually lead on to `The Lord of the Rings,'" McKellen replies. "So Gandalf is part of the adventure, but he's also looking after other matters as well and meeting up with Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Radagast (Sylvester McCoy), and dealing with strange goings-on all over the place.

"So, particularly in the first film, it's very interesting."

McKellen reports that he slipped back into character pretty easily and quickly. It was, in many ways, simply a matter of putting on his Gandalf costume and makeup.

"I couldn't put on the old costume," McKellen says, "because that, the original, is now preserved. It's some sort of antique that may not be touched and is being held until eventually it ends up in a museum, I think. But the costume I wear is very much Gandalf of old. I got some black boots, which I'm pleased about, and which Tolkien mentions. I wear a silver scarf, which we didn't in the first films.

"I think I felt that Gandalf had never actually left me, oddly enough," McKellen says. "It wasn't difficult to get back into the voice and the character, and the script was so strong. Also I played Gandalf the White in two of the `Rings' films, and this is back to Gandalf the Gray, which is the Gandalf I prefer. He's the one who likes to spend an evening drinking and smoking and having fun with the hobbits. He's a more humane sort of a character.

"Andy Serkis was frightened that he was doing an imitation of himself as Gollum," McKellen adds, "and I felt that too, a little bit. It didn't take long to get over that, though, and the dwarves were very helpful because, when I walked onto the set as Gandalf, a couple of them said, `Oh, I really feel I'm a part of Middle-earth now that I've met the old wizard.'"

Gandalf figures most prominently in "An Unexpected Journey." However, McKellen will return to New Zealand in May for five weeks to shoot additional scenes for the next two installments, "The Desolation of Smaug" and "There and Back Again," to be released in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Right now, though, after years of "Hobbit" delays and near-misses, the actor is pleased that moviegoers worldwide will be able to starting seeing "Hobbit" movies.

"I suppose I'm ready," he says, "and I keep bumping into other people who can't wait, whether it's at my corner shop or someone in the street or on the subway or at Comic-Con in San Diego. At Comic-Con there were people sleeping overnight in order to see our presentation the following day, and I went out to visit with them. So I know the fans are all there, as keen as ever.

"It's so very rare to make movies that you know people are desperate for," McKellen concludes, "and you don't want to disappoint anyone. So I'm as ready as I can be."

(Ian Spelling is a New York-based freelance writer.)