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Ian Charleson (1949 – 1990)

Celebrated stage and film actor who played fellow graduate Eric Liddell in 'Chariots of Fire'.

Ian Charleson

Edinburgh-born and the son of a printer, by the age of eight Charleson was performing in local theatre productions. He won a scholarship to and attended Edinburgh's Royal High School, and eventually 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.

The University

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, also changing his degree studies to English, fine art, and mathematics.

In addition to his acting roles at the University, Charleson also directed many plays there, and he designed costumes for several as well, and also performed regularly at the Edinburgh Festival and Edinburgh Festival Fringe.


After graduating from the University of Edinburgh, Charleson won a place at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), where he studied for two years, before joining the Young Vic in 1973 and assuming meaty roles in stage powerhouses including 'Jospeh and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat', 'Look Back In Anger', and 'Hamlet'.

Making his West End debut in 1975, he went on to make notable appearances in several major productions before spending a year with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1979.

Other acclaimed stage roles include an extremely popular revival of 'Guys and Dolls' in 1982, an Olivier-nominated performance opposite Julie Walters in 'Fool for Love', and the iconic role of Brick in 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' with Lindsay Duncan.

His final stage role saw him return to 'Hamlet' at the National Theatre, a performance which many believed to be the best of his career.


Charleson's most famous film roles came courtesy of two iconic films of the early 80s. in 1981 he was cast as Eric Liddell, the Olympic athlete and religious missionary (and graduate of the University of Edinburgh) whose life was the subject of 'Chariots of Fire'. The following year he took on the part of Charlie Andrews oppostibe Ben Kingsley in 'Gandhi'. Both films received universal acclaim and won several Academy Awards each.


Charleson 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 his run of Hamlet for the National Theatre.

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.