Charleson was gay. He 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, 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 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.
- Ian McKellen, Alan Bates, Hugh Hudson, et al. For Ian Charleson: A Tribute. London: Constable and Company, 1990. ISBN 0-09-470250-0 p. 124.
- http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=WTYLAAAAIBAJ&sjid=vlEDAAAAIBAJ&pg=4830,675395&dq=charleson+mckellen+hamlet&hl=en Obituary – United Press International