When actor Michael Gambon passed away on September 28, he was immediately remembered by colleagues and fans around the world for his work portraying Albus Dumbledore in the “Harry Potter” films — but he’s not the only one.
Gambon famously took over the part of Dumbledore between “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” when original actor Richard Harris passed away and was eulogized for this most recent and beloved performance. Recasting such a major role in a film or TV franchise is fairly unprecedented; it’s rare that a studio would choose this over any other option unless there was no choice. Gambon’s take on the role was never meant to imitate Harris, but rather to find his own take on the character, and in the six films that followed, he did just that.
It’s worth noting that while Gambon and viewers grew into his performance, it didn’t start out that way. Reviews of “Prisoner of Azkaban” were largely positive, including when it came to acting, but film critics were not the voracious fans many of them are now. At the very least, no one writing a critique of this movie was someone who grew up reading Harry Potter, given the books’ recency, so there was little scrutiny placed on Dumbledore’s book-to-screen translation.
But among fans, Gambon’s early years on the job garnered mixed reviews, at best. For many, his performance was too big, too physical, too angry. His furious, borderline violent delivery of “Did you put your name in the Goblet of Fire?” from the film of the same name was skewered and memed, regularly compared to the text where author J.K. Rowling’s writes that Dumbledore asked the question “calmly.” At the same time, he found an energy and physicality different from Harris’, true to the Dumbledore on the page who exudes power and confidence despite being over a century old.
When David Yates took over as director for “Order of the Phoenix” (and the remaining “Potter” films, including the “Fantastic Beasts” franchise), Gambon found the balance between Harris’ muted Dumbledore and his own. In the fifth film, Dumbledore is intentionally cold to Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), a film that culminates in Voldemort and Dumbledore dueling spectacularly. It transitioned easily into the wise and whimsical Dumbledore of “Half-Blood Prince,” who guides Harry toward his final battle with valuable knowledge as well as agonizing questions.
Actor James Phelps shared a memory on Twitter of speaking to Gambon between takes of his critical death scene, a time when Gambon could have tuned out and stepped away but instead focused on helping his costar prep for another job.
Gambon’s final scene in Harry Potter was in “Deathly Hallows – Part 2,” when Dumbledore and Harry meet at an abstract representation of King’s Cross station. It’s one of the most muted scenes in the series, with Radcliffe and Gambon standing and talking in a bright, misty setting. In those bittersweet moments, Gambon smiles, offers comfort, and delivers line after line of some of Dumbledore’s most beloved dialogue. Whatever lingering opinions fans may have on Gambon’s overall performance, rare is the criticism of his later films, and that silence provides its own testimony; no comment, no complaint.
It’s telling that Gambon’s passing caused an instant outpouring online from Harry Potter fans around the world, with “Dumbledore” trending as one of his most revered and respected roles. Gambon may have been tasked with stepping into another actor’s shoes, but he rose to the occasion, and his legacy is not just of embodying this indelible character, but becoming synonymous it — a magical Hollywood feat.
The “Harry Potter” films are now streaming on Max.