Rafe Spall shares story of meeting a naked Michael Gambon
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Sir Michael Gambon, the celebrated stage and screen star, has been inundated with goodwill as he marks another birthday on Wednesday, October 19. Messages of celebration were sent to the Dublin-born star – among them was The Leaky Cauldron, the name of the fictitious pub in the Harry Potter saga. On its Twitter account, it wrote: “Happy 82nd Birthday to Michael Gambon. He was brought on to play Professor Dumbledore in the #HarryPotter films starting in ‘Prisoner of Azkaban’ after the death of Richard Harris. Let’s all wish him a calm and cheerful birthday.”
Sir Michael began his career on the stage, starring alongside some of the most heralded actors of a generation, such as Sir Laurence Olivier, whom he worked with as part of the National Theatre Company at the Old Vic, in London.
He soon turned his hand to film, however, again playing alongside Olivier in his screen debut in 1965’s Othello, which also starred Dame Maggie Smith.
Since then he has become one of the most recognisable faces on the planet as a result of his iconic filmography. Though he is largely well-known for the role of Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore, he also featured in flicks such as The King’s Speech, Cranford and Layer Cake.
As well as starring opposite the likes of Olivier and Smith, Sir Michael can also call Hollywood megastar Johnny Depp an acquaintance. The pair played alongside one another in the 1999 film Sleepy Hollow – and during filming Sir Michael played a wry prank and the young Depp.
Sleepy Hollow was being filmed on the lands of a stately home near Windsor in 1998, and one day the late Queen rode past with her friend Harry Herbert, the 17th Earl of Pembroke. Sir Michael knew the Earl as he was also a film director.
During a 2007 Q&A with Future Movies, Sir Michael noted that the location was the “only place where the Queen can ride her horse from Windsor without going on public roads”. He continued: “Well, the Queen came past one day – and everyone was gobsmacked.
“She obviously had her entourage, but next to her was a friend of mine called Henry Herbert. As they went past, I’m standing there with all the actors and Henry shouts, ‘Hello Mike.’ So I reply: ‘Hello Henry, how are you mate?’
“The Queen waves like she was talking to me and on they went, but Johnny was speechless. He asked: ‘Do you know her?’ And I said: ‘Yeah, she’s a mate of mine.'”
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In the Harry Potter franchise, Sir Michael took over the role of the famous headmaster from fellow Irishman Richard Harris, who passed away as a result of pneumonia in London, on October 25, 2002.
It was unclear as to who would take over the role, with Harris’ lifelong friend Peter O’Toole touted as a possible replacement. Upon news of Harris’ death family admitted their wish for his friend to also take on the role.
But there were concerns too over O’Toole’s deteriorating health, with producers concerned that he may not be able to perform the role for the final six films. He was then succeeded by Sir Michael.
Director Chris Columbus, who directed Harris in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, recalled how during the star’s final days he had promised him that he would not recast Dumbledore, sure that the Irishman would recover.
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Sir Michael was forced to retire from his beloved stage as a result of memory issues. Speaking to the Sunday Times’ magazine in 2015, he said: “It’s a horrible thing to admit, but I can’t do it. It breaks my heart. It’s when the script’s in front of me and it takes forever to learn. It’s frightening.”
Sir Michael, who grew up in London, noted how the realisation that his time on the stage was over came when he started reading for a new West End play at the time.
He said: “There was a girl in the wings and I had to plug in my ear so she could read me the lines. After about an hour I thought, ‘This can’t work. You can’t be in theatre, free on the stage, shouting and screaming and running around with someone reading to you.’ ”
As well as being knighted for services to drama in 1998, Sir Michael has collected an array of awards, including four BAFTA TV Awards and three Olivier Awards. In 2020 he was listed as the 28th greatest Irish actor by The Irish Times.
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