Ian Charleson: Wikis


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Ian Charleson
Born John Charleson
August 11, 1949(1949-08-11)
Edinburgh, Scotland
Died January 6, 1990 (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.

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 major Shakespearean roles, and the annual Ian Charleson Awards were established in his honour in 1991, to 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]


Early life

Born in Edinburgh, Charleson was the son of a printer, and grew up in a working-class area of the city. He was given his father's name, John, but from birth was called Ian, the Gaelic variation of the name.

A bright, musical, artistic child, as a boy Charleson performed in several local theatre productions. He won a scholarship to and attended the Royal High School. In his teens, Charleson joined and performed with The Jasons, an Edinburgh amateur theatrical group. He also sang solo as a boy soprano in his high school choir, which performed on the radio.

Charleson won a scholarship to the University of Edinburgh, which he attended from 1967–1970, obtaining a three-year MA Ordinary degree. Initially Charleson studied architecture. However, he spent most of his time acting with the student-run drama society at the university, which did not have a drama department, 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.[3] In addition to his acting roles at Edinburgh University, Charleson also directed many plays there, and he designed costumes for several as well.

Stage career

LAMDA and Young Vic

Charleson began acting as a child and teen performer in local Edinburgh theatre productions. After graduating from Edinburgh University — where he played leads in dozens of productions, including numerous Shakespeare plays — he 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 the Young Vic Theatre Company. He made his acclaimed professional stage debut in 1972, as Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger. In 1973 he was 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, and he traveled with the company to Brooklyn, New York that same year to appear in The Taming of the Shrew, Scapino, and French Without Tears.

Charleson had a beautiful tenor singing voice, which he used in musicals and other performances. His first professional musical was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1972), with the Young Vic.

National Theatre debut and Royal Shakespeare Company

In 1975, Charleson 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.

He next appeared in a number of Shakespearean productions in larger companies. With the National Theatre he performed Octavius in Julius Caesar in 1977. He subsequently spent a year in Stratford-upon-Avon with the Royal Shakespeare Company 1978–79. There he performed Ariel in The Tempest, Tranio in The Taming of the Shrew, and Longaville in Love's Labour's Lost — all both in Stratford and at the Aldwych Theatre in London. With the RSC he also played Pierre in Piaf, giving a performance which caught the eye of the filmmakers of Chariots of Fire.

West End and the spotlight

Charleson made his West End debut in 1975 as Dave, a Glasgow lout, in Simon Gray's Otherwise Engaged at the Queen's Theatre, opposite Alan Bates. He subsequently appeared in several more acclaimed lead performances on the London stage, including Peregrine in Volpone (1977) opposite John Gielgud, Lawrence Veil in Once in a Lifetime (1979), Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls (1982–83), Eddie in Sam Shepherd's Fool for Love (1984–85), Boito in Julian Mitchell's After Aida (1986), and Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1988).

Shortly before his death, 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.[4][5] 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.[6][7]

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 happened to see Charleson performing the role of Pierre in Piaf, and knew immediately they'd 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". 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.[8] This film and role made Charleson an international celebrity, and he had a similar high-profile success playing the English priest Charlie Andrews in Gandhi (1982), opposite Ben Kingsley.

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.[9][10] Also impacting 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 include: punk-era Angel in his film debut Jubilee (1977), Lt. Ryder in the acclaimed "Irish question" film Ascendancy (1982), the abusive drunk Jeffson Brown in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan (1984), a comedic turn as Gerald Spong in Car Trouble (1985), and Marco in Dario Argento's horror film Opera (1987).

Television: Shakespeare, TV films, and series

Charleson performed in three BBC Television Shakespeare films: as Fortinbras in Hamlet (1980), Bertram in All's Well That Ends Well (1981), and Octavius Caesar in Antony & Cleopatra (1981). Other notable made-for-television film roles include: Rakitin in A Month in the Country (1984), Kyril in Codename: Kyril (1988), and Maj. Brendan Archer in Troubles (1988). His notable television roles include Jamie MacGregor in the mini-series Master of the Game, Bonnie Prince Charlie in Scotland's Story (1984), and Victor Geary in Oxbridge Blues (1984).


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.[11]

Charleson requested that it be announced after his death that he had died of AIDS, in order to publicize 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 awareness of HIV and AIDS and acceptance of AIDS patients.[12]

Charleson is buried in Portobello Cemetery, Edinburgh.


For his performance in Chariots of Fire, Charleson won a Variety Club Showbiz Award in February 1982.[13]

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 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.

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

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, and David Rintoul, published a book of reminiscences about him, called For Ian Charleson: A Tribute. 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 1982–1983 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.[14]

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.

In addition to the accolades he received during his lifetime, Charleson has received abundant posthumous praise for his acting ability. Ian McKellen said Charleson was "the most unmannered and unactorish of actors: always truthful, always honest."[15]


Three recordings were issued of Charleson's singing:

Charleson also sings a solo ballad on an episode ("The Empire") of the television series Rock Follies of '77.[19]

Selected filmography

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

Major theatre credits

Year Title Role Director Playwright Theatre
1972 Look Back in Anger Jimmy Porter John Osborne Young Vic Theatre
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
1973 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
1975 Hamlet Hamlet Shakespeare Cambridge Theatre Company
Otherwise Engaged Dave Harold Pinter Simon Gray 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
1978–1981 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 Veil Trevor Nunn Moss Hart
George Kaufman
Royal Shakespeare Company at the
Aldwych Theatre
The Innocent Joe Maguire Howard Davies Tom McGrath Warehouse Theatre
1982–1983 Guys and Dolls Sky Masterson Richard Eyre Frank Loesser
Jo Swerling
Abe Burrows
Damon Runyon
National Theatre (Olivier Theatre)
1984–85 Fool for Love Eddie Peter Gill Sam Shepherd National Theatre (Cottlesloe Theatre)
Lyric Theatre
1986 After Aida Boito Howard Davies Julian Mitchell Old Vic Theatre
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)



  1. ^ The Houghton Mifflin Dictionary of Biography. Houghton Mifflin, 2003. p. 308.
  2. ^ McKellen, Bates, Hudson, et al. p. 4.
  3. ^ Data from Alumni Administrator, Edinburgh University
  4. ^ "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
  5. ^ ObituaryAssociated Press
  6. ^ Barratt, Mark. Ian McKellen: An Unofficial Biography. Virgin Books, 2005. p. 63.
  7. ^ "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.
  8. ^ McKellen, Bates, Hudson, et al. pp. 37–39.
  9. ^ McKellen, Bates, Hudson, et al. pp. xxii–xxiii.
  10. ^ Andrews, Deborah (ed). The Annual Obituary 1990. London: St James Press, 1991. pp. 9–10.
  11. ^ McKellen, Bates, Hudson, et al. p. 124.
  12. ^ ObituaryUnited Press International
  13. ^ Ian Charleson: Film & TV credits at BFI ScreenOnline
  14. ^ Benedict, David. "Good Night, Sweet Prince." The Independent. 6 January 1995.
  15. ^ "Actor Who Starred in Chariots of Fire Dies of AIDS Illness." Deseret News. January 8, 1990.
  16. ^ EP available from Ariel Music
  17. ^ Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – Original London Cast
  18. ^ Guys and Dolls – Original National Theatre Cast Album
  19. ^ Charleson singing on Rock Follies of '77

External links

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