Ian Charleson

Ian Charleson
Born (1949-08-11)11 August 1949
Edinburgh, Scotland
Died 6 January 1990(1990-01-06) (aged 40)
London, England
Occupation Actor, singer
Years active 1972–1989

Ian Charleson (11 August 1949 6 January 1990) was a Scottish stage and film actor. He is best known internationally for his starring role as Olympic athlete and missionary Eric Liddell, in the Oscar-winning 1981 film Chariots of Fire. He is also well known for his portrayal of Rev. Charlie Andrews in the 1982 Oscar-winning film Gandhi.

Charleson was a noted actor on the British stage as well, with critically acclaimed leads in Guys and Dolls, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Fool for Love, and Hamlet, among many others. Over the course of his life Charleson performed numerous Shakespearean roles, and in 1991 the annual Ian Charleson Awards were established, particularly in honour of his final Hamlet. The awards reward the best classical stage performances in Britain by actors aged under 30.

The Houghton Mifflin Dictionary of Biography describes Charleson as "a leading player of charm and power" and "one of the finest British actors of his generation".[1] Alan Bates wrote that Charleson was "definitely among the top ten actors of his age group".[2] Ian McKellen said Charleson was "the most unmannered and unactorish of actors: always truthful, always honest".[3]

Charleson was diagnosed with HIV in 1986, and died in 1990 at the age of 40. He requested that it be announced after his death that he had died of AIDS, in order to publicise the condition. This was the first celebrity death in the United Kingdom openly attributed to AIDS, and the announcement helped to promote awareness and acceptance of the disease.

Early life

Charleson performed often at the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe from 1967 through 1973.

Born in Edinburgh, Charleson was the son of a printer, and grew up in a working-class area of the city. A bright, musical, artistic child, by the age of eight he was performing in local theatre productions. He won a scholarship to and attended Edinburgh's Royal High School; and in his teens, Charleson joined and performed with The Jasons, an Edinburgh amateur theatrical group. He also sang solo as a boy soprano in church and in the Royal High School choir, which performed on the radio and in Edinburgh Festival concerts.

Charleson won a scholarship to the University of Edinburgh, which he attended from 1967–1970, obtaining a three-year Scottish MA Ordinary degree. Initially Charleson studied architecture. However, he spent most of his time acting with the student-run Edinburgh University Drama Society, and decided to pursue acting as a career. He changed his study concentration accordingly, and graduated with a degree in English, fine art, and mathematics.[4] In addition to his acting roles at Edinburgh University, Charleson also directed many plays there, and he designed costumes for several as well.

From 1967 through 1973, Charleson also performed often at the Edinburgh Festival and Edinburgh Festival Fringe, becoming a noted actor in those circles.[5]

Stage career

LAMDA, Young Vic, and Cambridge Theatre Company

After graduating from the University of Edinburgh – where he played leads in dozens of productions, including numerous Shakespeare plays[6] – Charleson won a place in the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), where he studied for two years.

From LAMDA, Charleson was hired by Frank Dunlop's Young Vic Theatre Company. He made his professional stage debut in 1972 with the Young Vic, as one of the brothers in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1972), which was also televised in the UK that same year by Granada Television.[7] In 1973, he starred as Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger, and that year he was also Hamlet and later Guildenstern in the first revival of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Also as part of the Young Vic company, Charleson was Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing in 1974. He traveled with the company to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York that same year, to appear as Lucentio in The Taming of the Shrew, Ottavio in Scapino, and Brian Curtis in French Without Tears.

In 1975, he played the title role in Hamlet in a Cambridge Theatre Company touring production. The performance garnered good reviews; nevertheless Charleson felt he had not done the notoriously difficult role complete justice.

West End and National Theatre debuts, Royal Shakespeare Company

Charleson made his West End debut in 1975, in a long-running production of Simon Gray's Otherwise Engaged at the Queen's Theatre. In it he played Dave, a surly Scottish lodger, opposite Alan Bates.

He next appeared at the National Theatre, where he performed Octavius in Julius Caesar in 1977. That year he also played Peregrine in the classic play Volpone, opposite John Gielgud, and Captain Phoebus in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Charleson then spent a year in Stratford-upon-Avon with the Royal Shakespeare Company 1978–79. There he performed a hauntingly voiced Ariel in The Tempest; Tranio in The Taming of the Shrew; and Longaville in Love's Labour's Lost opposite Richard Griffiths as the King – all both in Stratford and at the Aldwych Theatre in London. Also with the RSC, he was Lawrence Vail in an acclaimed production of Once in a Lifetime (1979) at the Aldwych Theatre, and he played Pierre in the Jane Lapotaire vehicle Piaf, giving a performance which caught the eye of the filmmakers of Chariots of Fire.

National Theatre spotlight

At the National Theatre, Charleson appeared in Julius Caesar, Volpone, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. His acclaimed starring roles there were in Guys and Dolls, Fool for Love, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Hamlet.

In the 1980s, Charleson won particular critical and popular acclaim for his starring roles at the National Theatre. He was a glowingly reviewed Sky Masterson in Richard Eyre's enormously successful revival of the musical Guys and Dolls (1982), opposite Julie Covington as Sister Sarah, with Bob Hoskins as Nathan Detroit and Julia McKenzie as Adelaide.

Charleson received an Olivier Award nomination for Actor of the Year in a New Play as Eddie in Sam Shepard's gritty and very physical two-person drama, Fool for Love (1984–85), opposite Julie Walters as his on-again off-again love object. And he was a highly praised Brick, the repressed homosexual protagonist in Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1988), opposite Lindsay Duncan.

Final Hamlet

Shortly before his death, while seriously ill from AIDS, from 9 October to 13 November 1989 Charleson performed his second run of Hamlet, this time at the National Theatre – giving a definitive performance which garnered major accolades.[8][9] Director Richard Eyre, with some initial misgivings based on Charleson's health, had brought him in to replace Daniel Day-Lewis, who had abandoned the production.

In a lengthy review praising Charleson's performance, John Peter wrote in the Sunday Times:

[T]he masterful new Hamlet: Ian Charleson. .... Technically he employs clarity combined with a powerful dramatic drive. His delivery is steely but delicate. The words move with sinuous elegance and crackle with fire. His Hamlet is virile and forceful. ... He oozes intelligence from every pore. ...

The way Charleson can transform a production is a reminder that actors are alive and well, that directors can only draw a performance from those who have one in them and that in the last analysis the voice of drama speaks to us through actors.[10]

The day following Charleson's final Hamlet performance, when Ian McKellen was given the Evening Standard Award for Best Actor for his Iago in Othello, McKellen offered thanks, but said having seen "the perfect Hamlet" at the National Theatre the previous night, he thought that not he but Ian Charleson was truly the Best Actor of 1989.[11][12]

Film and television

Chariots of Fire and Gandhi

In 1979, producer David Puttnam and director Hugh Hudson had done months of fruitless searching for the perfect actor to play the lead of the evangelical Scot Eric Liddell in their upcoming inspirational film about the Olympics. They then saw Charleson performing the role of Pierre in Piaf, and knew immediately they had found their man. Unbeknownst to them, Charleson had heard about the film from his father, and desperately wanted to play the part, feeling it would "fit like a kid glove".[13] This mutual affinity led to Charleson's best-known film role and success – as the athlete and missionary Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire (1981). Charleson prepared for the role by studying the Bible intensively, and he himself wrote Liddell's stirring post-race address to the workingmen's crowd.[14] This film and role made him an international celebrity.

Charleson had a similar high-profile success the following year, in a luminous performance playing Mahatma Gandhi's closest friend and collaborator, the Anglican priest Charlie Andrews, in Gandhi (1982), opposite Ben Kingsley. Like Chariots of Fire, the film Gandhi won great acclaim and numerous Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Other film work

After these two major successes in these two Best Picture Oscar–winning films, Charleson's film career did not, however, follow the same progressive arc that his stage career did. Good feature Hollywood scripts did not pour in after Chariots of Fire; nor did Charleson choose to move to Hollywood to capitalize on his success.[15][16] Also affecting his film career was the fact that he was diagnosed with HIV in 1986, and thereafter lacked enthusiasm to do feature films, although he was not symptomatic until the autumn of 1988. Charleson's drive to pursue a rich stage career focusing on Shakespearean leads, however, remained strong.

Charleson's other feature film roles are: punk-era Angel in his film debut Jubilee (1977) directed by Derek Jarman; Lt. Ryder in the Golden Bear-winning "Irish question" film Ascendancy (1982), which starred Julie Covington; a small role as the abusive drunk Jeffson Brown in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan (1984); a comedic turn as Gerald Spong in the rather ill-fated Car Trouble (1985), opposite his friend Julie Walters; and opera director Marco in Dario Argento's horror film Opera (1987).

Television: Shakespeare, TV films, and teleplays

Charleson performed in three BBC Television Shakespeare films: as Fortinbras in Hamlet (1980) starring Derek Jacobi; the protagonist Bertram in the acclaimed production of All's Well That Ends Well (1981); and Octavius Caesar in Antony & Cleopatra (1981) opposite his frequent co-star Jane Lapotaire as Cleopatra.

His other notable made-for-television film roles include: the titular Lieutenant Dorfrichter in M. Fagyas's Austro-Hungarian pre-war mystery The Devil's Lieutenant (1983); Rakitin in Turgenev's A Month in the Country (1985) opposite Eleanor Bron; Kyril in the spy thriller Codename: Kyril (1988) opposite Edward Woodward, Richard E. Grant, and Peter Vaughan; and the protagonist Major Brendan Archer in the faithful screen adaptation of J. G. Farrell's Booker Award-winning Troubles (1988), opposite Ian Richardson.

Charleson's notable starring television roles in the 1970s include: Anthony in A Private Matter (1974), his first starring screen role, opposite Rachel Kempson; slick and cruel John Ross preying on Scottish immigrants to the New World in O Canada (1975) in the anthology series Churchill's People; and one of two British soldiers who find military life nearly unbearable in The Paradise Run (1976), directed by Michael Apted.

In the 1980s his notable starring TV roles included: Alexander the Great's close companion Hephaistion in the PBS miniseries The Search for Alexander the Great; serial killer Neville Heath in an episode of the murder-trial reenactment series Ladykillers (1981); naive Scot turned powerful South African magnate Jamie MacGregor in the miniseries Master of the Game (1984); romantic lead Clarence Dandridge in the period miniseries Louisiana (1984) opposite Margot Kidder; and protagonist Victor Geary in the stylish and clever Oxbridge Blues (1984), written by Frederic Raphael, directed by James Cellan Jones, and co-starring Amanda Redman, Rosalyn Landor, and Malcolm Stoddard.

Singing work

Charleson used his tenor singing voice in musicals and other performances. He did notable solo singing work in productions including Much Ado About Nothing (1974), an episode of Rock Follies of '77 (1977), The Tempest (1978–1979), Piaf (1978–1980), Guys and Dolls (1982), A Royal Night of One Hundred Stars (1985), After Aida (1985–1986), Andrew Lloyd Webber's and Tim Rice's Cricket (1986), Sondheim: A Celebration (1988 benefit for Crusaid), and Bent (1989). He also sang classic standards and show tunes, and the songs of Robert Burns, in variety programmes on stage and television.

Three commercial recordings have been issued that include Charleson's singing:

Charleson also sings a solo ballad on an episode ("The Empire") of the television series Rock Follies of '77, available on DVD.[20]


Charleson, who was gay, was diagnosed with HIV in 1986, and died of AIDS-related causes in January 1990 at the age of 40. He died eight weeks after performing the title role in a run of Hamlet, in Richard Eyre's production at the Olivier Theatre. Fellow actor and friend Sir Ian McKellen said that Charleson played Hamlet so well it was as if he had rehearsed the role all his life.[21]

Charleson requested that it be announced after his death that he had died of AIDS, in order to publicise the condition. This unusual decision by a major internationally known actor – the first show-business death in the United Kingdom openly attributed to complications from AIDS – helped promote awareness of HIV and AIDS and acceptance of AIDS patients.[22]

Honours and commemoration

For his performance in Chariots of Fire, Charleson won a Variety Club Showbiz Award for Most Promising Artiste in February 1982.[23][24]

Charleson was nominated for the Olivier Award for Actor of the Year in a New Play, for his starring role as Eddie in Fool for Love in 1984.

In The Sunday Times, John Peter named Charleson the Best Male Actor of 1989 for his Hamlet, along with Ian McKellen for his Iago in Othello.[25]

For Ian Charleson: A Tribute (1990)

In Charleson's honour, the annual Ian Charleson Awards were established in 1991, to reward the best classical stage performances in Britain by actors aged under 30.[26][27]

The Royal Free Hospital's Ian Charleson Day Centre for people with HIV, in London, is named in his memory.

On 8 April 1990, three months after his Edinburgh funeral, a very emotional public memorial service was held for Charleson in London. A recording of his haunting singing of "Come Unto These Yellow Sands" from The Tempest was played.[28]

In 1990, following his death, 20 of Charleson's friends, colleagues, and family members, including Ian McKellen, Alan Bates, Hugh Hudson, Richard Eyre, Sean Mathias, Hilton McRae, Ruby Wax, and David Rintoul, contributed to a book of reminiscences about him, called For Ian Charleson: A Tribute, published in October 1990. All royalties from the sale of the book went to the Ian Charleson Trust, a charitable foundation which operated from 1990 to 2007.

Two emotional reunion performances of Guys and Dolls, with almost all of the original 1982 cast and musicians, were given at the National Theatre in November 1990 as a tribute to Charleson. The tickets sold out immediately, and the dress rehearsal was also packed. The proceeds from the performances were donated to the new HIV clinic at the Royal Free Hospital, and to scholarships in Charleson's name at LAMDA.[29]

Hugh Hudson, who had directed Charleson in Chariots of Fire, dedicated his 1999 film My Life So Far "In loving memory of Ian Charleson". The 2005 videos "Wings on Their Heels: The Making of Chariots of Fire" and "Chariots of Fire: A Reunion" are both also dedicated to his memory.


Year Film Role Notes
1972 Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat Gad Televised stage musical, ensemble role
1973 Hopcraft Into Europe Guillaume TV play (ITV Sunday Night Theatre), main cast
1974 A Private Matter (ITV Sunday Night Theatre) Anthony Black-Mathieson TV play, starring role
Intimate Strangers Tom Anson TV series (2 episodes), small role
1975 O Canada John Ross TV play (in the anthology series Churchill's People), leading role
1976 The Paradise Run Henry TV movie, leading role
1977 Rock Follies of '77 Jimmy Smiles TV series; episode: "The Empire", singing role
1978 Jubilee Angel Feature film, supporting role
1980 Hamlet, Prince of Denmark Fortinbras BBC Television Shakespeare
1981 All's Well that Ends Well Bertram BBC Television Shakespeare, lead role
Chariots of Fire Eric Liddell Feature film, starring role, film won the Academy Award for Best Picture
The Search for Alexander the Great Hephaistion TV mini-series, supporting role
Antony & Cleopatra Octavius Caesar BBC Television Shakespeare
1981 Ladykillers Neville Heath TV series (murder trial reenactment) ep: "Make It a Double", starring role
1982 ITV Playhouse: Something's Got to Give Ian Arthur TV play, lead role
Gandhi Charlie Andrews Feature film, main cast, film won the Academy Award for Best Picture
1983 Ascendancy Lt. Ryder Feature film, supporting role, film won the Golden Bear Award
Reilly: Ace of Spies Lockhart TV miniseries (3 episodes), small role
1984 The Devil's Lieutenant Lt. Dorfrichter TV movie, title role
Master of the Game Jamie McGregor TV mini-series, leading role
Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes Jeffson Brown Feature film, small role
Scotland's Story Prince Charles Edward Stewart TV mini-series, small role
Louisiana Clarence Dandridge TV mini-series, leading role
Oxbridge Blues Victor Geary TV play, ep. "Oxbridge Blues", starring role
The Sun Also Rises Mike Campbell TV movie, small role
1985 Royal Night of 100 Stars Himself Singing performance, "You're Just in Love"
A Month in the Country Rakitin TV movie, leading role
1986 Car Trouble Gerald Spong Feature film, leading role
1987 Opera Marco Feature film, main cast
1988 Codename: Kyril Kyril TV movie, title role
Troubles Maj. Brendan Archer TV movie, starring role

Major theatre credits

Year Title Role Director Playwright Theatre
1972 Bible One, Part I:
The Genesis Mediaeval Mystery Plays:
The Creation to Jacob
Angels / Noah's son Frank Dunlop Frank Dunlop
Young Vic Theatre Company at the
Edinburgh Festival
Young Vic Theatre
The Roundhouse
Joseph and the Amazing
Technicolor Dreamcoat
Gad Frank Dunlop Andrew Lloyd Webber
Tim Rice
Young Vic Theatre Company at the
Edinburgh Festival
Young Vic Theatre
The Roundhouse
The Comedy of Errors Police Officer / Singer Frank Dunlop Shakespeare Young Vic Theatre Company at the
Edinburgh Festival
Young Vic Theatre
1973 Look Back in Anger Jimmy Porter Bernard Goss John Osborne Young Vic Theatre
Hobson's Choice Freddy Beenstock Bernard Goss Harold Brighouse Young Vic Theatre
1973–74 Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Are Dead
Bernard Goss Tom Stoppard Young Vic Theatre
1974 Much Ado About Nothing Claudio Frank Dunlop Shakespeare Young Vic Theatre
1974 The Taming of the Shrew Lucentio Frank Dunlop Shakespeare Young Vic Theatre Company at the
Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York
Scapino Ottavio Frank Dunlop Molière
Frank Dunlop
French Without Tears Brian Curtis Frank Dunlop Terence Rattigan
1974 The School for Scandal Moses Robert Lang Richard Brinsley Sheridan Cambridge Theatre Company
1974 Six Characters in Search of an Author Member of the
Acting Company
Richard Cottrell Pirandello Cambridge Theatre Company
1974–75 Hamlet Hamlet Richard Cottrell Shakespeare Cambridge Theatre Company
1975–76 Otherwise Engaged Dave Harold Pinter Simon Gray Oxford Playhouse
Richmond Theatre
Queen's Theatre
1977 Julius Caesar Octavius John Schlesinger Shakespeare National Theatre (Olivier Theatre)
Volpone Peregrine Peter Hall Ben Jonson
The Hunchback of Notre Dame Captain Phoebus Michael Bogdanov Ken Hill National Theatre (Cottlesloe Theatre)
1978–1979 The Tempest Ariel Clifford Williams Shakespeare Royal Shakespeare Company,
Aldwych Theatre, London
The Taming of the Shrew Tranio Michael Bogdanov
Love's Labour's Lost Longaville John Barton
1978–1980 Piaf Man at rehearsal /
Howard Davies Pam Gems The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon
Gulbenkian Studio, Newcastle
Warehouse Theatre, London
Aldwych Theatre, London
Wyndham's Theatre, London
1979 Once in a Lifetime Lawrence Vail Trevor Nunn Moss Hart
George Kaufman
Royal Shakespeare Company at the
Aldwych Theatre
The Innocent Joe Maguire Howard Davies Tom McGrath Warehouse Theatre
1982 Guys and Dolls Sky Masterson Richard Eyre Frank Loesser
Abe Burrows
Damon Runyon
National Theatre (Olivier Theatre)
1984–85 Fool for Love Eddie Peter Gill Sam Shepard National Theatre (Cottlesloe Theatre)
Lyric Theatre
1985–86 After Aida Boito Howard Davies Julian Mitchell Taliesin Theatre, Swansea
Old Vic Theatre
1986 Cricket Donald Trevor Nunn Andrew Lloyd Webber
Tim Rice
Windsor Castle
1988 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Brick Howard Davies Tennessee Williams National Theatre (Lyttelton Theatre)
1989 Bent Greta / George Sean Mathias Martin Sherman Adelphi Theatre (benefit for Stonewall)
Hamlet Hamlet Richard Eyre Shakespeare National Theatre (Olivier Theatre)

See also



  1. The Houghton Mifflin Dictionary of Biography. Houghton Mifflin, 2003. p. 308.
  2. McKellen, Bates, Hudson, et al. p. 4.
  3. "Actor Who Starred in Chariots of Fire Dies of AIDS Illness." Deseret News. 8 January 1990.
  4. Data from Alumni Administrator, Edinburgh University.
  5. McKellen, Bates, Hudson, et al. p. xvi: "He became, according to the Edinburgh Evening News, 'a well-known figure in fringe circles.'"
  6. Charleson's roles with the Edinburgh University Dramatic Society included, among others: Malvolio in Twelfth Night; Gaveston in Edward II; John Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest; Dr. Prentice in What the Butler Saw; Callimaco in Mandrake, the Musical; Tony Lumpkin in She Stoops to Conquer; the Herald in Marat/Sade.
  7. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (TV, 1972) at the Internet Movie Database.
  8. "The Readiness Was All: Ian Charleson and Richard Eyre's Hamlet", by Richard Allan Davison. In Shakespeare: Text and Theater, Lois Potter and Arthur F. Kinney, eds. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999. pp. 170–182.
  9. Associated Press. "Chariots star dies of AIDS. 8 January 1990.
  10. Peter, John. "A Hamlet Who Would Be King at Elsinore". Sunday Times. 12 November 1989.
  11. Barratt, Mark. Ian McKellen: An Unofficial Biography. Virgin Books, 2005. p. 63.
  12. "The Readiness Was All: Ian Charleson and Richard Eyre's Hamlet", by Richard Allan Davison. In Shakespeare: Text and Theater, Lois Potter and Arthur F. Kinney, eds. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999. p. 177.
  13. Ian McKellen, Hugh Hudson, Alan Bates, et al. For Ian Charleson: A Tribute. London: Constable and Company, 1990. pp. xix, 9, 76.
  14. McKellen, Bates, Hudson, et al. pp. 37–39.
  15. McKellen, Bates, Hudson, et al. pp. xxii–xxiii.
  16. Andrews, Deborah (ed). The Annual Obituary 1990. London: St James Press, 1991. pp. 9–10.
  17. Guys and Dolls – Original National Theatre Cast Album.
  18. CD available from Ariel Music.
  19. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – Original London Cast.
  20. Charleson singing on Rock Follies of '77.
  21. McKellen, Bates, Hudson, et al. p. 124.
  22. United Press International. "Chariots of Fire star dies of AIDS". 8 January 1990.
  23. Ian Charleson: Film & TV credits at BFI ScreenOnline.
  24. Clark, Al and James Park. The Film Year Book 1983. Grove, 1983. p. 156.
  25. Plays and Players, Issues 434-444. Hansom Books, 1990. p. 38.
  26. Peter, John. "Stairway to success". Sunday Times. 20 June 2010.
  27. Peter, John. "John Peter announces the fourth Sunday Times–Royal National Theatre Ian Charleson Awards for young actors". Sunday Times. 30 January 1994. (Online reprint: ).
  28. Cox, Brian. The Lear Diaries. Methuen, 1992. p. 31. Re-anthologized in: Taylor, Irene. The Assassin's Cloak: An Anthology of the World's Greatest Diarists. Canongate, 2000. p. 185.
  29. Benedict, David. "Good Night, Sweet Prince". The Independent. 6 January 1995.

External links

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