Ian Charleson, 40; Star of Film ‘Chariots of Fire’

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Ian Charleson, the Scottish actor who starred in the film “Chariots of Fire” as an Olympic sprinter who refused to compete on a Sunday for religious reasons, has died of complications from AIDS, a spokesman said Sunday in London.

Charleson, 40, died Saturday at his London home of septicemia, an affliction caused by microorganisms in the blood, said Michael Whitehall, the actor’s agent.

Death came “following a courageous struggle with the AIDS virus,” Whitehall said.

The actor, who had recently won critical acclaim for his portrayal of “Hamlet” at London’s National Theater, became an international star in the 1981 film “Chariots of Fire”--that year’s Academy Award-winner for best picture. Charleson played Scottish missionary and sprinter Eric Liddell.


“I was fortunate enough to see Ian’s last performance, as Hamlet at the National Theater nine weeks ago,” Whitehall said. “After nearly four hours on stage he was given a standing ovation by a huge and appreciative audience.

“It was clear that he was exhausted, but his courage, not only in being on that stage but giving us the performance of his life, left our applause and cheers seeming very inadequate.

“We have lost a much-loved, greatly respected and hugely talented young actor.”

In “Gandhi,” the Oscar-winner for best picture in 1982, Charleson played Charlie Andrews, a priest who traveled to South Africa to join the passive resistance movement launched by Mohandas K. Gandhi.

In one of the film’s more memorable scenes, Charleson as the priest and Ben Kingsley as the future Mahatma encounter a group of threatening young white toughs on a South African street. Andrews and Gandhi seem assured of a thrashing until one of the boys’ mothers orders him to head off to his job.

Mark Fisher, an opposition Labor Party spokesman on the arts, said Charleson’s widely acclaimed performance as Hamlet “indicated that an enormous career lay ahead of him. This is a terrible tragedy for the British theater.”

The Financial Times said Charleson’s Hamlet is “a civilized, mature, witty and eminently decent prince with whom one would willingly discuss architecture. . . . Mr. Charleson gives us the reasonable man surrounded by unreasonableness, the civilized human plunged into barbaric nightmare.”


Charleson was born in Edinburgh on Aug. 11, 1949. The son of a printer, he won a scholarship to the Scottish capital’s Royal High School and went on to study architecture at Edinburgh University.

His interest in acting developed, Charleson once said, when he discovered he had the ability “to make people laugh and make them cry.”

He studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and began his stage career in London at the Young Vic Theater from 1972 to 1974.

His performances with the National Theater included roles in “Julius Caesar” and “Volpone” in 1977, and “Guys and Dolls” in 1984.

He received particular acclaim for his performances in two American plays at the National--Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love” in 1985, and a 1988 production of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” in which he played Brick.

One of his recent television roles was the lead in “Troubles,” a film version of J.G. Farrell’s book about Ireland’s fight for independence.


There will be a private family funeral in Scotland later this week and a memorial service in London later in the year, Whitehall said.