August 11, 1949
|Died||January 6, 1990 (aged 40)
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." Alan Bates wrote that Charleson was "definitely among the top ten actors of his age group."
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. In addition to his acting roles at Edinburgh University, Charleson also directed many plays there, and he designed costumes for several as well.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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).
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.
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.
Charleson is buried in Portobello Cemetery, Edinburgh.
For his performance in Chariots of Fire, Charleson won a Variety Club Showbiz Award in February 1982.
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.
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."
Three recordings were issued of Charleson's singing:
|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)|
|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|
|1988||Codename: Kyril||Kyril||TV movie|
|Troubles||Maj. Brendan Archer||TV movie|
|1972||Look Back in Anger||Jimmy Porter||John Osborne||Young Vic Theatre|
One, Part I:
The Genesis Mediaeval Mystery Plays:
The Creation to Jacob
|Angels / Noah's son||Frank Dunlop||Frank
|Young Vic Theatre
Company at the
Young Vic Theatre
|Joseph and the
|Gad||Frank Dunlop||Andrew Lloyd Webber
|Young Vic Theatre
Company at the
Young Vic Theatre
|1973||Hobson's Choice||Freddy Beenstock||Bernard Goss||Harold Brighouse||Young Vic Theatre|
|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
|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
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,
Gulbenkian Studio, Newcastle
Warehouse Theatre, London
Aldwych Theatre, London
Wyndham's Theatre, London
|1979||Once in a Lifetime||Lawrence Veil||Trevor Nunn||Moss Hart
|Royal Shakespeare Company at
|The Innocent||Joe Maguire||Howard Davies||Tom McGrath||Warehouse Theatre|
|1982–1983||Guys and Dolls||Sky Masterson||Richard Eyre||Frank
|National Theatre (Olivier Theatre)|
|1984–85||Fool for Love||Eddie||Peter Gill||Sam Shepherd||National Theatre (Cottlesloe
|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)|