The end is near. Muggles everywhere have waited for months (and months … and months …) for “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” and now it’s so close they can feel it. Our own countdown to the film is finishing strong with Wednesday’s interview with Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy) and today’s strong feature on the headmaster himself, Michael Gambon, written by our “Potter” specialist Denise Martin:
Michael Gambon has played Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore for five years but he hasn’t been setting a good example for his students when it comes to finishing their homework: The beloved old wizard hasn’t cracked a single one of J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” novels.
The choice not to read Rowling’s book series, he explains, is deliberate and he points out that costars Ralph Fiennes and Alan Rickman haven’t taken up the books either.
“You’d get upset about all the scenes it’s missing from the book, wouldn‘t you?” Gambon said via phone from New York, where he was promoting the opening this Wednesday of the sixth “Potter” film. “No point in reading the books because you’re playing with [screenwriter] Steve Kloves’ words.”
And Kloves, along with director David Yates, have demanded an intense Dumbledore, who in the fourth film physically shook Harry when the boy wizard’s name wound up in the “Goblet of Fire.” It’s a characterization that isn’t as pronounced in the book — Dumbledore doesn’t yank and jostle his star student, for starters — and it upset many “Potter” fans.
In fact, many riled-up muggles also took to the Internet after the third film to complain that Gambon didn’t have the same kindly grandfather aura that they came to expect in the books and in the first two films when the role was portrayed by the late Richard Harris.
Since joining the Potter cast in the third movie, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” Gambon has fashioned Dumbledore into a tougher patriarch, an urgent and mysterious force in the midst of impending war. Less cuddly, this Dumbledore is clearly presented as a formidable opponent to Potter’s snake-faced nemesis, Voldemort.
And though Harris (who died in London at age 72 in 2002) had a twinkling gentleness, Gambon’s Dumbledore is a wry observer with crackling wit when it comes to the misadventures of his pupils.
In “Half-Blood Prince,” for instance, Ron Weasley’s girlfriend Lavender Brown goes wailing past the headmaster after she loses her red-headed beau to Hermione Granger. The old wizard, with a smirking tone, muses, “Oh, to be young and to feel love’s keen sting.”
The 68-year-old Irish actor, with an illustrious 40-year stage career, is deeply respected by the young cast members. The franchise’s title star, Daniel Radcliffe, for instance, said he was bringing his full powers to an especially emotional moment in the film. (WARNING: If you haven’t read the books, you’ll be wanting to skip this next paragraph due to a key revelation.)
“Dumbledore dies and I had to do a scene lamenting over his body,” Radcliffe explained to U.K. tabloid The Daily Mirror. “Michael is the most respected actor I have ever worked with so I had to really pull out the stops to convey the emotion.But after the fourth take, I looked down and saw that he had dozed off. I had to prod him to wake up. So much for impressing someone with your skills!”
The teacher may doze, but the students dare not drift off. That’s the message both on-camera and off-camera, according to Gambon, who has made more than five dozen films, among them “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover,” “Gosford Park” and “Sleepy Hollow.”
“He’s got to be a bit scary,” Gambon said 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.”
(WARNING: Here comes that same spoiler again, if you haven’t read the books, skip the next three paragraphs.)
Gambon said he wasn’t terribly emotional upon learning of Dumbledore’s death, and he viewed it a bit as an Obi-Wan Kenobi sorta-kinda death. “Wizards can’t die, can they? They’re always a bit there.”
Still, he said his demise is the film’s most powerful scene. Atop Hogwarts’ Astronomy Tower, Dumbledore is confronted by a determined Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), the Voldemort disciple who has been tasked with killing the headmaster. The youngster’s confidence is shaken when it’s time to do the dark deed. “He goads Draco,” Gambon said of his character. “He knows he isn‘t going to do it.”
The faithfully rendered moment will be more potent to fans of the books who know that Dumbledore is, in fact, aware of the plot. Disarmed but calm, his beseeching eyes plead with his torn collaborator Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) not to save his life but to end it, unbeknown to Harry. Says Gambon: “He knows what’s what. He invites it. It’s quite good how he dies. I’ve died in quite a few plays and films, I’m always dying, and this one is good.” (In the film, there is one MAJOR departure from the book concerning the orchestration of this climactic scene, but we’ll leave that surprise alone.)
The actor says the enormity of the “Potter” phenomenon hit him again recently at the London premiere of “Half-Blood Prince,” where more than 4,000 kids turned up to get a glimpse of the magical cast. Gambon called it both heartwarming and bittersweet.
“I was really moved by the number of children there. It was raining and everyone was drenched, some of them had been there for hours. You feel responsible for them in a way. All their books and pieces of paper for autographs were all wet, the pens wouldn’t work. It was so sad. It makes you realize how big this thing is.”
The filming of the final Harry Potter movies, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” is underway but Gambon’s contributions aren’t scheduled until February. He says that makes it feel as if the end is still far away for him, but he has already begun to reflect on the experience.
“It’s been,” he said, “a real privilege.”
Watching stars Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint grow up has been especially fun. “They’ve become worldly, wise and strong actors. That’s been nice to see. You can say things to them now that you couldn’t say to them then.”
Like what? “Oh I don’t know. I dare not say,” he said, chuckling. Should we assume the worst? “Yes,” he answered with a cryptic bit of sass. How very Dumbledore.
— Denise Martin
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Photos: Warner Brothers