In the latter part of Michael Gambon’s long and storied acting career, some of the most animated analyses of his performances could be found not in theater or film reviews, but in forums for the “Harry Potter” fandom, where dedicated Hogwarts obsessives would dissect his every onscreen utterance as the wizard Albus Dumbledore.
It wasn’t originally his role. Richard Harris, the eminent actor who was originally cast, died after filming the second “Harry Potter” movie. Gambon took over in 2003, joining the ranks of great British actors with popular late-career turns as wizards, a lineage that includes Alec Guinness (as the wizard-like Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi in “Star Wars”) and Ian McKellen (as Gandalf in the “Lord of the Rings” films).
Several other well-known actors were initially considered to succeed Harris in the role, including McKellen, who demurred, and Peter O’Toole, who turned it down because of his long, close friendship with Harris.
In the end the choice was Gambon, whose family said Thursday that he had died. He made the role his own, donning the long silver beard and half-moon spectacles and speaking in his unmistakable rich baritone voice, a stark contrast to Harris’s hoarser, more wizened readings as the headmaster of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
He was seen by millions, and after a career playing the characters of Brecht and Pinter it was Dumbledore that became his most recognizable — and probably most debated — role.
Once Gambon debuted in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” imbuing the character with a darker, sometimes mischievous tone, the question was born: Who was the “better Dumbledore”? Harris, with his soft-spoken, kind hearted air? Or Gambon, with his more sinister twist on the character?
Gambon was self-deprecating about the role.
“I just stick on a beard and play me, so it’s no great feat,” Gambon told a British movie blog in 2007. “Every part I play is just a variant of my own personality.”
Gambon, who entered the film series in his early 60s, also chose to avoid reading J.K. Rowling’s source material, an approach that he once said was similar to that of Alan Rickman, who played Severus Snape, and Ralph Fiennes, who played Voldemort. He said bluntly that he tended to take movie roles for the money, telling the blog, “I just say what the script tells me to say.”
Over the course of six movies, including limited roles in the two-part finale, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” he became beloved by fans and known as something of a prankster on set, once putting a “fart machine” inside Daniel Radcliffe’s sleeping bag. Rupert Grint, the actor who played Ron Weasley in the series, said in an Instagram post on Thursday that Gambon brought “so much warmth and mischief to every day on set.”
“He captivated me as a kid and became a personal role model of mine for finding the fun and eccentricities in life,” Grint wrote.
Onscreen, the darker edge Gambon brought to the role dovetailed with the trajectory of Rowling’s story, as well as the approach of the filmmaker David Yates, who directed the second half of the movie series.
“He’s got to be a bit scary,” Gambon told The Los Angeles Times in 2009 of his Dumbledore. “All headmasters should be a bit scary, shouldn’t they? A top wizard like him would be intimidating. And ultimately, he’s protecting Harry. Essentially, I play myself. A little Irish, a little scary. That’s what I’m like in real life.”