Sir Michael Gambon has died at the age of 82, having passed away peacefully at hospital surrounded by his loved ones, his family announced.
The actor had a remarkable career on stage and screen but, while his decades in the industry are to be celebrated, for a generation he defined one character in particular: Professor Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter film franchise.
In the books and films, Dumbledore was Harry Potter's (Daniel Radcliffe) mentor. The Hogwarts headmaster championed Potter as the Chosen One who would one day defeat Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), he is one of the most important characters of the Wizarding World franchise, and a key player in the Fantastic Beasts prequel movies too — played there by Jude Law.
But Gambon wasn't the first Dumbledore. The actor took over the role from Richard Harris — who portrayed Hogwarts' headmaster in the first two Harry Potter films until his own death in 2002 — assuming the wizard's robes from 2004's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban until Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 in 2011.
Harris left big shoes to fill but Gambon was took up the challenge with vigour, doing something fans of the franchise weren't expecting; he made it his own.
A new Dumbledore
In The Philosopher's Stone and The Chamber of Secrets, Harris played Dumbledore as soft-spoken, homely, and warm: a character that you felt you could trust implicitly.
But Gambon took the character in a completely different direction: embracing his darker side, making him an erratic and suspicious character.
Dumbledore became more sombre, prone to mood swings and anger — who can forget his outburst at Harry for putting his name in the Goblet of Fire in the franchise's fourth film?
It was a complete 180 for the character, and for some it was a shocking change after Harris' friendlier version of Dumbledore, but cannily Gambon had predicted exactly what author J.K. Rowling intended for the professor in her books.
Dumbledore had dark secrets and he was a manipulative person underneath his soft exterior. He wasn't someone Harry — or the audience — should fully trust.
Gambon conveyed that onscreen even before readers were aware of the character's true nature, and he did so without making the professor seem unapproachable or a bad person.
Dumbledore is more complicated than that. He has a moral greyness to him that only became clear over the course of The Half-Blood Prince and The Deathly Hallows, and Gambon understood that implicitly.
What Gambon said about Dumbledore
In a talk at the Oxford Union, Gambon explained that he had a deep understanding of the character from the moment he took on the role: "When I went on to play Dumbledore I knew how to play him.
"I can’t tell you how, but you get something inside you that tells you what you’re going to do. The script informs you of the process, sort of.
"Good ones do, bad ones don’t.
"So it informed me of something, and I went on that stage for my first performance and no one said that was bad, no one said that was good either, and I went, and I was there for... more than six years."
While his take came as a shock at first, once viewers truly understood Dumbledore and his intentions for Harry as a soldier against Voldemort, Gambon's performance made perfect sense.
It paved the way for the final reveal, and showed that while Dumbledore was a father figure for Harry — he was far from perfect. It is testament to Gambon's acting skills that this was done so naturally.
Gambon became the quintessential version of the character for many, and while some felt his portrayal was too dark there is one thing that all Harry Potter fans can agree with: The actor made the character his own.
In the UK, the Harry Potter films are streaming on Netflix and on NOW. In the US, they are available to stream on MAX.
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