Table for One

updated 02/12/2001 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/12/2001 01:00AM

Anthony Hopkins is on the deck of his airy two-bedroom home in Los Angeles's Pacific Palisades. The view: miles of curving coastline, Catalina Island rising in the distant Pacific shimmer. Inside, incense burns while soothing flute music floats over the growl of a distant leaf blower. There's a piano, a couple of bronze Buddhas and a wall of books reflecting Hopkins's love of art, literature and history. But the place bears virtually no trace of Hopkins's prodigious career or his "special genius," as Steven Spielberg calls it—the gift that has Julia Roberts cooing, "I would pay to work with Tony."

In fact it was only weeks ago that Hopkins, 63, sent for his Oscar—the one given for his role as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in 1991's The Silence of the Lambs. The statuette had been in the London home he once shared with Jenni, his wife of 28 years. "He felt it was time to have it," she says. (Still married, they've lived mostly apart, amicably, since 1995.) A shape-shifting presence for 35 years in roles from Quasimodo to John Quincy Adams, Lear to Lecter, Hopkins shakes off the fuss made over his dazzling craft. "Acting's entertainment," he says simply. "It's not brain surgery."

But who better to combine the two than Sir Tony, who does so in Hannibal, the sequel to Silence, opening Feb. 9 (see review, p. 33). Hopkins may have become a U.S. citizen last year, but his slow-blinking, flesh-craving Lecter will forever enjoy resident alien status in the spooked memories of a generation of filmgoers. "That eye contact with the audience," says Spielberg, "is probably the scariest thing any of us has ever witnessed from a character without prosthetic makeup, scary pointed teeth and contact lenses."

True to form, Hannibal the Cannibal performs his grisly neurosurgery in an elegant dining room—with sizzling skillet and white wine at hand. Though the hard-to-swallow climax of Thomas Harris's gruesome bestseller is now more multiplex-friendly, Jodie Foster and director Jonathan Demme, who both shared in Silence's five-Oscar sweep, declined to come to the table (leaving Ridley Scott to direct and Julianne Moore to play FBI agent Clarice Starling). "People have their reasons. I didn't ask why," Hopkins says. "As long as it's a nice location and the script is good, I don't wonder if it's a good career move and all that bull. It's a job. Point me to the camera, that's it."

Hopkins began preparing for his life's work early on. Philip Anthony-Hopkins was born in Port Talbot, Wales, on New Year's Eve, 1937. He grew up in the neighborhood of Taibach, where his parents, Dick and Muriel, owned a bakery and "sacrificed," he says, to send him to boarding school. An only child, Hopkins was a poor student and a misfit. "I didn't know what time of day it was," he says. "I was an idiot." For relief, he studied piano and lost himself in films like Key Largo, The African Queen and Chaplin's Limelight, which he saw 15 times. "I identified with that loner."

But it was local boy Richard Burton who showed the starstruck Hopkins a way out. When Burton was visiting his sister, a bakery customer, 15-year-old Tony stopped by for an autograph. "There he was, shaving with an electric razor. I had never seen one. I couldn't believe it was the same man I'd seen in The Robe. I knew I wanted to get out of Wales. I wanted to be famous."

Hopkins spent two years at Cardiff College of Music and Drama, and after a stint with the Royal Artillery (he clerked at a base), he performed onstage in Wales as well as in Manchester and Nottingham in England. In 1963 he graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London and was then mentored by Laurence Olivier, who ran Britain's National Theatre. "He was a grand guy, a great autocrat but not an elitist," says Hopkins. "He looked out for everyone." Hopkins's toughest act was looking out for himself as the enfant terrible of London's stage scene. He drank ("There were performances I don't remember"), chafed at theater snobs ("the dahhling brigade") and railed at directors ("I was a damned nuisance"). When he met Jenni Lynton, a film production assistant, in 1969, he was married to actress Petronella Barker and daughter Abigail was 14 months old. Within three months he had moved out and was living with Jenni. They married in 1973. "Tony was then exactly as he is today," she recalls, "a seething mass of contradictions—almost impossible to understand, very easy to love."

Hopkins, who at one point was "virtually broke," was seduced by L.A. on his first visit in 1974: "I'd never seen anything like California—all these long-legged girls. I'd go to Dean Martin's restaurant every night, shoot back tequila and see all the lights come on in my head." The following year the lights nearly went out: He awoke in Phoenix and couldn't recall driving there. "I thought, 'This is crazy.' I simply stopped drinking. It took three minutes." (Well, maybe not quite. He's been in sobriety programs ever since.)

For nearly a decade he and Jenni lived in L.A., through an uneven string of films and TV dramas, including the sappy International Velvet and an Emmy-winning turn as the fuhrer in The Bunker. In 1984 they returned to London and Hopkins resumed his stage career. But by 1987 he was burned out on the Bard. During a run of Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre, he says, "I used to hear Judi [Dench] speaking that verse and think, 'What the f—-am I doing here? I'm a baker's son. I'm out of my depth.' To me hell would be a wet Wednesday afternoon in the Old Vic for the rest of eternity, standing onstage in wrinkled tights doing Shakespeare. I hated every minute of it. Loathed it."

Not long afterward Silence turned golden for Hopkins. Since then he's been on a tear, making 23 films, including The Remains of the Day, Howard's End, Nixon, and Mission: Impossible 2. But in 1998, weary and hounded by the British press over a relationship, since ended, with L.A. screenwriter Francine Kay, he announced he was quitting the business. Or did he? He says he was misquoted: "I just wanted a rest."

For the past several years he has also wanted a change in his marriage, a union that now spans eight time zones. It's a situation that Lady Hopkins bears with far more grace than bitterness. Jenni, who lives in their six-floor Georgian townhouse, is "too English" to uproot—least of all to L.A. "I love to visit but couldn't make my life there," she says. They are in "constant contact," she reports, and plan up to six visits together a year. "It's comfortable," she says, "like we've never been apart."

But it's clear that weather isn't all that separates the couple. Jenni says she'd "still be inclined to be, if he wants it, the still point in [his] turning world." And, she says, "I miss him very much, miss him all the time, really. But I don't think—and I say this with great love—that it's in Tony's nature to live with somebody. It's probably better this way." Hopkins agrees. "I am a good provider but was never much of a husband. I did the very best I could to live a domestic life. I simply cannot do it." But, he adds, "I don't want to sound like a damaged man. I'm in very good shape."

Jenni does concede that Hopkins is "quite honest" about his other women. He was linked with actress Joyce Ingalls in the mid-'90s, and a couple of years ago his friendship with Kay, whom he met at a local breakfast joint, turned into what she calls "a brief romance," but Hopkins backed off last year. "When I get too close to someone," he says, "I want to move on. Jenni says, 'You're a strange man. You don't seem to need anything.' I don't." Kay, 44, has no regrets: "We found out we were best as friends. That's our strongest bond." Notes Hopkins: "I don't feel ready—or any desire—for any commitment. I've hurt enough people." One of them, of course, being Jenni. "Yes, one is hurt," she admits. "I don't find it an easy state. But, I suppose, the years speak for themselves."

Hopkins won't discuss their future, but Jenni is emphatic: "If I've got any choice, I don't want to divorce. For me it was a marriage for better, for worse and all the rest." What sustains it? "Some sort of golden thread. It's durable, yes, sometimes a bit slack in the middle, but it's there."

Hopkins's ties to daughter Abigail, 32, an actress who has been living in L.A., have been more tenuous. (She played a nurse in Shadowlands and a maid in Remains.) A reconciliation years ago "faded away," he says. "She had her reasons. Resentment, whatever. We are both very unneedy. I'm the one who's pulled back from everyone."

What he doesn't pull back from are the performances he puts on the screen. Fiercely disciplined, Hopkins may read a script 300 times, keeping score in the margins with tiny asterisks and a surrounding circle for every five readings. His work ethic is a costar's and director's dream: Spielberg, who directed him as a stooped, shuffling John Quincy Adams in 1997's Amistad, says, "We never went over three takes."

To Julia Roberts, an admiring friend who has never worked with him, Hopkins sinks his teeth in. "It's as if he thinks the thoughts of Picasso or Nixon, his face transforms into Picasso or Nixon," she says. "It's just the best party trick I've ever seen. It's amazing." Certainly Hopkins's mastery of the material pays off for him. "It gives me a feeling of such calm and self-confidence," he says, "that I can go have a coffee or go watch TV instead of slaving over it." Observes Jenni: "Tony is inclined to make light of the work. But it is completely consuming—the roles do take him over."

Once immersed, Hopkins expects nothing but the best from those around him. But intensity shouldn't be confused with self-importance. As for pretentious colleagues, "I can't stand that," he says. "Nobody's allowed to talk or joke because they're doing great art. Biggest crock of all, that is." "The fact that Tony hasn't got an ego," says his Mask of Zorro costar and fellow Wales native Catherine Zeta-Jones, "is the sexiest thing in the world."

On or off the set, Hopkins's impish humor and dead-on mimicry keep the mood light. As cameras rolled for the gamy surgery scene in Hannibal, he broke into a whiny, squeamish Woody Allen riff. Says Roberts: "Watching Anthony Hopkins do Jack Nicholson at dinner? It's like, 'Okay, I'm done, I've seen it all.' At a White House dinner last year he did Brando from The Godfather—"sniffin' the flower in his lapel, lookin' over his shoulder," says close friend and location stand-in Terry Rowley. "Clinton just rolled up, he thought it was so funny." His humor will soon come in handy: Harvard's irreverent Hasty Pudding Theatricals recently named Hopkins Man of the Year and will roast him on Feb. 15. After all, he muses, "life's all one big jest, a game. You learn to play it and have some fun with it. That's what I do."

Hopkins currently is having fun in his newest role, as Citizen Tony, the-freshly minted American. Aside from L.A.'s weather and Hollywood's wages, he loves the Yank spirit: "Americans like success. They never apologize for trying hard." Last April he took the oath of citizenship in a private ceremony in U.S. federal court with Spielberg videotaping the event. (Knighted in '93, Hopkins has dual citizenship and still qualifies as a Sir—"if you want to bow and grovel.")

The news of his defection triggered some ugly headlines ("Hannibal Traitor," "Hannibal Defector") in the U.K. "There was such an overreaction," says Hopkins. "The press called me a turncoat. I didn't realize we were at war with America." But he knew he wasn't at peace with Jenni, whom he hadn't told in advance. "It came as a shock," she admits. "He wanted to avoid my disapproval." Hopkins apologized for the "brutish way" he handled it, he says. "I wanted to make my own mind up. I didn't want to get opinions. I think Jenni would have been despondent. And she was. She knows I'm not going back."

Hopkins's L.A. life is about eclectic pleasures and a craving for solitude. "When I'm here on my own," he says, "I feel very peaceful, very strong." He reads Victorian poetry, Jungian psychology and history; listens to Waylon Jennings and Dolly Parton; plays Chopin and composes; and watches "any old junk" on TV at dawn during his 70-minute treadmill run-walk. He's happy dining out alone with a book, and he frequently breakfasts with the same friends (Rowley, filmmaker Gavin Grazer), ordering oatmeal or the odd "heart attack on a plate—crispy bacon, omelet, home fries. I'm not a great foodie." He hikes nearby Temescal Canyon, vanishes for long trips in his white BMW and has a mercurial streak that keeps even close friends at bay: "Tony can get very cool," says Rowley. Agrees Jenni: "People do find it confusing that he gives off great warmth, love and understanding. Then they meet him days later and it's back to arm's length." Explains Hopkins: "Suddenly I say, That's it.' I'm not a cruel person. I outgrow things."

There is one bond, however, that Hopkins still cherishes and nurtures: that with his mother, Muriel, 87. His father died of heart disease in 1981, and Hopkins bought her a home near his own a few years ago. "I check in on her, she comes and sits on the sun deck. She's an amazing woman. She loves parties, visiting, the movies. She loves the good life." She got a taste of it last December when he took her to the $1.5 million New York City wedding of Michael Douglas and Zeta-Jones. "Muriel is inspirational," says the Welsh bride. "She danced with anybody—everybody. She had a full dance card that evening."

Hopkins's life remains a restless whirl. The Vietnam drama Hearts in Atlantis opens in October, and he is filming The Devil and Daniel Webster (as Webster) with Alec Baldwin, who's also directing. Then it's a Chris Rock action-comedy and maybe a drama in Prague. And, likely, visits with Jenni, possibly in Prague or L.A.—"wherever it suits us both," she says. As she knows, casual is what Sir Tony prefers. "I don't feel any tension," he says. "It's peace of mind, senility, whatever—a coming to terms with life. And it's the best time of my life." It feels, he says, "like a wonderful emptiness."

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