By EW Staff
Updated June 30, 2011 at 01:00 PM EDT

The creators of the $2 billion-grossing Harry Potter movies may be laughing all the way to Gringotts Bank, but the success of the films wasn’t always such a sure thing. “If they had cast American actors or put cheerleaders at Hogwarts — and all these hideous ideas were indeed being pitched and discussed at the time — Harry Potter would have been one movie, not a series,” says Chris Columbus, director of the first two films in the most lucrative movie series in Hollywood history. “It would have just died.”

Thankfully, the filmmakers remained true to author J.K. Rowling’s magical vision — and fans are now eagerly awaiting the final installment in the Franchise That Lived: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2, opening in theaters July 15. In the new special double issue of Entertainment Weekly, we bid farewell to the boy wizard and the cinematic magic conjured up around him. The 50 pages of coverage includes:

• A look back at the entire Potter franchise, including exclusive behind-the-scenes photos and recollections from more than 20 stars and filmmakers. Daniel Radcliffe reveals how he almost didn’t bother auditioning for the role of Harry. “When they first approached us, my parents were told that whoever got the part would be signing on for six films — that were going to be filmed in Los Angeles. My parents felt that that would be far too big a disruption to my life.” When production later moved to the U.K., though, Radcliffe put himself forward — and soon landed the role that would change his life forever.

• A preview of the final film, including fresh details on the 19-years-later epilogue that required a re-shoot last December after director David Yates’ failed first attempt with some heavy-handed aging makeup. As Rupert Grint recalls: “I looked really overweight, and with this weird feathered hairpiece they put on me, I looked like a mutant Donald Trump.”

• Christopher Columbus’ first-person account of the challenges of casting very young actors and working with them despite notably short attention spans. “The first film was shot in an almost documentary style because the actors were so untrained and raw,” he writes.

• Profiles of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, complete with original photography. “I have spent more of my life being someone else than I have being myself,” says Watson. The 21-year-old remembers how she used to exasperate the crew at Leavesden Studios by wandering around when she wasn’t shooting. “There was an orchard, a line of apple trees, on one side of the grounds. I would go down and walk around there. Those poor ADs! They must have had nervous breakdowns whenever I would disappear.”

• An exclusive close look at the props and sets from the series — and the stories behind them. For instance, Barry Wilkinson’s props department created hundreds and hundreds of wands for the eight films. “Over the years, it was becoming more and more difficult to think up different designs and shapes for each of them,” says Wilkinson.

For more, including our obsessive fan’s guide to the first seven films, pick up a copy of this week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands July 1.

For exclusive Harry Potter photo galleries — including an eye-popping look at 23 astounding Potter props — check out EW’s Harry Potter Central.

And for an exclusive portrait gallery of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint showcasing their playfulness and blooming adulthood, head over to EW’s Facebook page and “Like” us (if you haven’t already).