Ian Charleson (Ian Charleson)

Ian Charleson

Ian Charleson

Actor and Singer. He is best remembered for his starring role as Olympic athlete and missionary Eric Liddell, in the Oscar-winning 1981 film “Chariots of Fire” as well as his portrayal of Rev. Charlie Andrews, Mahatma Gandhi’s friend in the 1982 Oscar-winning film “Gandhi.” He was also a noted actor on the British stage, with critically acclaimed leads in “Guys and Dolls,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Fool for Love,” and “Hamlet,” among many others. He was the son of a printer, and grew up in a working-class area of Edinburgh, Scotland. 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 as a teenager, he 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. After finishing high school, he attained a scholarship to the University of Edinburgh, which he attended from 1967-1970, obtaining a three-year Scottish Master of Arts Ordinary Degree. He initially studied to become an architect but spent most of his time acting with the 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. In addition to his acting roles at Edinburgh University, he also directed many plays there, and designed costumes for several as well. After graduating from Edinburgh University, he won a place in the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), where he studied for two years. He was then hired by Frank Dunlop’s Young Vic Theatre Company, making his professional stage debut in 1972 as one of the brothers in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” From 1967 through 1973, he also performed often at the Edinburgh Festival and Edinburgh Festival Fringe, becoming a noted actor in those circles. 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, he played 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, which garnered good reviews. That same year he made his West End debut, in a long-running production of Simon Gray’s ‘Otherwise Engaged” at the Queen’s Theatre in Westminster, London, England. In 1977 he appeared at the National Theatre, where he played Octavius in “Julius Caesar.” That year he also played Peregrine in the classic play “Volpone” and Captain Phoebus in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” From 1978 to 1979 he was in Stratford-upon-Avon with the Royal Shakespeare Company where he performed as Ariel in “The Tempest,” Tranio in “The Taming of the Shrew,” and Longaville in “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” Also with the Royal Shakespeare Company, he was Lawrence Vail in an acclaimed production of “Once in a Lifetime” at the Aldwych Theatre in London, and he played Pierre in the Jane Lapotaire vehicle “Piaf,” giving a performance which caught the eye of the filmmakers of “Chariots of Fire.” After his major successes in “Chariots of Fire” and “Gandhi,” his film career did not follow the same progressive arc that his stage career did. Good feature Hollywood scripts did not pour in after Chariots of Fire, nor did he choose to move to Hollywood to capitalize on his success. Also affecting his film career was the fact that he (who was gay) was diagnosed with HIV in 1986, and thereafter lacked enthusiasm to do feature films, although he was not symptomatic until the autumn of 1988. During the 1980s he 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. He 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 to 1985), opposite Julie Walters as his on-again off-again love object. He also won high acclaim as Brick, the repressed homosexual protagonist in Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1988), opposite Lindsay Duncan. Shortly before his death, while seriously ill from AIDS, from 9 October to 13 November 1989 he played in his second run of “Hamlet,” at the National Theatre (replacing Daniel Day-Lewis, who had abandoned the production), receiving high praise and major accolades for his performance. He possessed a beautiful, haunting tenor singing voice, which he used in musicals and other performances. He performed in three BBC Television Shakespeare films, as Fortinbras in “Hamlet” (1980), as Bertram in “All’s Well That Ends Well” (1981); and Octavius Caesar in “Antony & Cleopatra” (1981). His other notable made-for-television film roles include Anthony in “A Private Matter” (1974, his first starring screen role), John Ross in “O Canada” (1975), the anthology series “Churchill’s People (1975 to 1976), Henry in “The Paradise Run” (1976), 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), Kyril in the spy thriller “Codename: Kyril” (1988), and Major Brendan Archer in the faithful screen adaptation of J. G. Farrell’s Booker Award-winning “Troubles” (1988). He also 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 programs on stage and television. He died from AIDS-related causes at the age of 40. He 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 promote awareness of HIV and AIDS and acceptance of AIDS patients. For his performance in “Chariots of Fire,” he won a Variety Club Showbiz Award for Most Promising Artiste in February 1982. The annual Ian Charleson Awards were established in 1991 in his honor, 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 Hampstead, London, is named in his memory. (bio by: William Bjornstad)

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  • Ian -


  • August, 11, 1949
  • Scotland


  • January, 01, 1990
  • London, England

Cause of Death

  • Aids


  • Portobello Cemetery
  • Scotland

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