Sir Ian McKellen initially said no to Gandalf and only scored the pivotal Lord of the Rings role thanks to a chance meeting in a restaurant.

While it's almost inconceivable to imagine wizened wizard Gandalf being played by anyone else, McKellen says shooting for The Fellowship of the Ring - the first film in Peter Jackson's blockbuster trilogy - clashed with another role he'd signed up for in 2000.

The frank admission comes in a new Lord of the Rings 10-year anniversary special in the December edition of Empire magazine, in which McKellen admits Gandalf was "the role of a lifetime" - but he initially turned down Jackson's offer.

"At the time I was about to play Magneto in the X-Men film in Toronto," he tells Empire. "I was already committed to that ... and it meant I couldn't get to New Zealand in time.


"So I had to tell Peter I could no longer do Gandalf."

It was that exact night that McKellen dined out at a London restaurant next to New Line Cinema executive Bob Shaye.

"He said, 'I hear you're going to be in our movie.' And I said, 'Oh, not anymore.' And he said, 'What's the problem?' And I explained.

"He just said, 'Leave that to me'," said McKellen.

"That was the best thing he ever did for me, beacuse they worked out they could do without me for the first three months ... that is what I remember of the beginning of it - how I very nearly didn't play Gandalf!"

The latest Empire magazine is available on import in New Zealand.

- Herald online