He chooses a "nice Chianti" to go with one victim's liver, munches a prison nurse's tongue—as his pulse rate purrs below 80—and would sooner marinate than medicate his psychiatric patients when their therapy begins bogging down.

No wonder Dr. Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter. the brilliant Freudian man-eating murderer, upstages even the gruesome serial killer currently stalking victims—and quavering audiences—in Jonathan Demme's riveting thriller The Silence of the Lambs. The film devoured all rivals to become last week's top grosser, as it were, with a meaty $13.7 million in ticket sales over the four-day Presidents' weekend. At the heart of Silence's success is Anthony Hopkins's Oscar-worthy performance as the demonic doc.

"I played Lecter with great relish," says Hopkins, 53, of the creature cooked from the very rare imagination of novelist Thomas Harris. Hopkins steals the film's best scenes—when Jodie Foster, as an ambitious FBI agent-trainee, visits his cell to pick his brain for clues to the psyche of the monster the bureau is searching for. "You can't play evil to portray evil," adds Hopkins, lunching on an un-Lecterly plate of linguine with olive oil at the Four Seasons Hotel in L.A. "If you do, it becomes a travesty. This was the best, most controlled work I've done. The part jumped straight off the script into my mind like the Alien. I immediately knew Lecter's voice, how he looked. I understood his complexities. It was easy. I used to make heavy weather of acting. Now I just learn my lines, show up and do it. No need to torture myself."

Indeed, Hopkins, who has played psychologically complex roles ranging from his Emmy-winning Hitler (The Bunker, 1981) to Quasimodo (CBS's The Hunchback of Noire Dame, 1982), cut set tension by spooking cast and crew. "Not a shooting day went by," recalls Demme, "without Tony gliding up behind Jodie or myself, baring his fangs and going, 'Good mooorning." Or he'd look round with these gigantic eyes at the whole crew and go, 'You know Jonathan's the mad one. He never blinks. He's quite insane.' His lightness made it easy for everybody else."

For his "wacko" parts, Hopkins taps into memories of a lonely, painful childhood in working-class Port Talbot, Wales. "Maybe it's in the genes," he says with a shrug. An only child, Tony says he had "a balanced bond" with his parents. Richard and Muriel, who ran a bakery. But his father, he recalls, "tended to depression and dark moods. I just felt very isolated for years and years, didn't feel I belonged anywhere. It made me depressed and miserable. I've drawn on that melancholia."

School was no refuge. Hopkins studied piano and could draw well, but in class, he says, he was "hopeless, pathetic, an idiot. I thought I was nuts, I felt so weird." A gift for mimicry helped him disarm his demons. "I used to impersonate people-teachers, later on army sergeants and famous actors—and made up bizarre situations for them. It was my way of controlling and getting back at what made me uneasy—authority."

At 15, Hopkins briefly met local hero Richard Burton. He asked for an autograph—and got much more. "I realized, 'God, I'd love to get out of this place, out of my own peculiar loneliness.' I was so shy, I figured acting would help me devil up confidence. So I sent a beam into the universe: 'I've got to become something.' "

When Hopkins dropped out of school at age 17, his father urged him to enroll in a drama class at a town YMCA. He won a scholarship to nearby Cardiff College of Music and Drama, and after two years of military service headed off to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. By 1967, at age 29, he was understudying Laurence Olivier's Edgar in Strindberg's The Dance of Death and was soon being hailed, variously, as the next Olivier. Burton and Gielgud. "I tried to disabuse people of the 'second Olivier' bit," he says. "There's nobody to touch him."

Predicting the next Hopkins became even trickier as the actor's life grew turbulent and he developed a reputation for an explosive temper. Hopkins married actress Petronella Barker in 1967, but they split 18 months after their daughter, Abigail, was born in 1968. The break was bitter, and Hopkins didn't sec Abigail again for almost seven years. "It's all over and done now. Abigail and I have become good friends the last two years. A close, very strange friendship in a way." Abigail, now 22 and an acting student at New York City's Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute, says simply, "We've patched things up."

In 1973 Hopkins married film-production assistant Jennifer Lynton. This marriage worked better, but the notorious tantrums continued. "I never gave any quarter. If a director suggested something, I'd savage him. I just lashed out. It was ego."

In 1974 Hopkins relocated with Jenni to New York City, then L.A. He played the frustrated psychiatrist in Equus on Broadway (ironically, Richard Burton followed him in the role), but his American film career was checkered: The deranged ventriloquist in the absorbing but commercially disappointing film Magic with Ann-Margret, the doctor in David Lynch's poignant The Elephant Man, and the adulterous prof in the pitiful A Change of Seasons with Bo Derek. If his career was falling short of its once-glorious promise. Hopkins hardly broke the fall. He even accepted such pulpy TV projects as Hollywood Wives "out of perverseness and sheer rebellion toward the English Establishment," he says. "I was saying. 'That's all crap over there.' That was my cynical way of protesting too much."

He was also drinking too much, suffering blackouts while recklessly driving through the hills outside L.A., tanked on tequila. "I used to space out and hallucinate. I was a lunatic, very hyper and manic. I was drinking to kill the discomfort of self-contempt. Then it dawned on me: I'm going to kill myself. I'm going to lose my wife, my career. I was destroying everything around me."

He says he dried out on his own in the late '70s. and by the time he and Jenni returned to London in 1985, "I had quit smoking, was exercising and running on all cylinders," In a 17-month period, as if to prove a point, he accomplished a prodigious feat, playing Shakespeare's Lear and Antony on two separate stages, for a total of 200 performances.

Hopkins and Jenni, who have no children, live in an early 1800s town house in Chelsea. "She is soothing and practical, and that balances out his stormier side," observes Abigail. Even Hopkins says he is finally at peace. "I've been able to translate my weirdness into all my work," he says. "I wanted to be exactly what I am now, to live a sane life instead of the lunacy I lived before."

That means relaxing with long walks, reading history and pop metaphysics (The Road Less Traveled), indulging his "addiction" to spicy Indian fare and spending hours at his grand piano. "His playing makes me cry," says Abigail.

Prone to depressions and drug problems in her teens, Abby briefly moved in with her father and Jenni a couple of years ago. It was, she admits, "a cry for help, for attention." Hopkins was listening. Says Abigail: "He showed enormous compassion and empathized with that kind of despair. But I also think my father and I have this Celtic thing, this yearning to be alone. He once said, 'Both of us will always be on a lonely road.' "

Hopkins still calls himself a drifter. "I love the anonymity of traveling, living in hotels," he admits. When filming, he wraps at day's end and seeks solitude, dining alone with a book. "I don't like being with people. I'm a very quick eater, so I don't seek people's company."

He must be eating alone a lot these days, having recently filmed HBO's One Man's War, airing in April, and the forthcoming feature film Spotswood before heading off to Georgia and the Mick Jagger-Emilio Estevez adventure movie, Free Jack. But he still approaches his career with what he describes as "nonexpectancy." Though Hannibal Lecter has resurrected his film image—and he may end up reprising the role in a sequel—Hopkins sees the lure of money as destructive. "You have to get tough, desensitize yourself to it," he says. "I remember years ago driving up Sunset Boulevard seeing these huge (billboards) for films and thinking, 'Why aren't I in them?' Then the other day I saw my face up there for Silence, and it made me laugh. 'Well,' I said to myself, 'I got what I wanted." Do I feel any different? No. It's just fun to see. I know that once this is over another will go up, and that will be the end of that."

  • Contributors:
  • Jim Jerome.