The actor will be honored at Only Make Believe's annual fund-raising gala

By Josh Rottenberg
November 02, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

With The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey hitting theaters Dec. 14, moviegoers will soon see Ian McKellen reprise his iconic role as the wizard Gandalf. But for years McKellen has quietly been working a different kind of magic, raising awareness and funds for the non-profit organization Only Make Believe, which brings theatrical performances into children’s hospitals. The actor is scheduled to be honored at Only Make Believe’s annual fund-raising gala on Broadway Nov. 5, and EW spoke with him about bringing entertainment to sick kids (and that little fantasy movie he has coming out).

How did you get involved in Only Make Believe?

My friend Dena Hammerstein — whose husband was [Broadway lyricist] Oscar Hammerstein’s son — thought up this idea to take performers into hospitals and put on a show to cheer up kids with chronic illnesses. The miracle is that nurses and doctors say not only are the kids’ lives improved for that moment, but it’s an aid to their recovery.

Have you personally witnessed that?

I have. I was with Dena in a hospital in New York once, and there was a little boy in a wheelchair and he was rather out of it. There was a character [from Only Make Believe] pulling funny faces and dancing around, and they popped a hat on the boy’s head, and he made a noise. The nurses gasped, and the mother started crying — because that boy hadn’t made a sound for six months. Only Make Believe is now working in 55 hospitals in New York and Washington, D.C., but it’s an idea that should be franchised across the world.

A lot of kids — and grown-ups — are excited about The Hobbit. The big news there, of course, is that it’s been expanded from two films to three.

Why not four? Why not five? [Laughs] The difference between making these films and the [Lord of the Rings trilogy] is that we know there’s an audience. They’re waiting. And I’m sure they won’t be disappointed.

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