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Hannibal Lecter Ate Anthony Hopkins’ Career

The latest installment of Misleading Men, the series where we look back at actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment

Sixteen minutes. A lifetime of chasing a dream came true in the span of 16 minutes. That’s how long Anthony Hopkins appears on screen as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, the 1991 thriller that won five Oscars, including Best Actor for Hopkins. It’s the least amount of screen time ever for a Best Actor recipient, and yet, Hopkins’ performance was so memorable that it feels like his monstrous character dominates the film.

When he took home the Oscar, Hopkins was 54 and hardly a household name. It was part of the secret to his portrayal: Audiences didn’t associate the respected stage and film actor with any established persona, making it easier for him to transform into Lecter. In the process, he finally attained what he’d always been seeking. “All my life,” Hopkins once declared, “I had wanted to be in films.”

Now, however, he wasn’t just in films; he was an immediate film legend.

Hopkins was born in Wales on New Year’s Eve in 1937. He was an only child who didn’t enjoy school very much, instead busying himself playing the piano, drawing and painting. He grew up across the street from a movie theater and spent his childhood, as he later told The Guardian, watching “all kinds of strange, obscure little films which have never seen the light of day since.” His family was neighbors with Richard Burton’s sister; Hopkins, in particular, was taken with the dashing actor, and soon he plotted to get into the profession himself. “I didn’t have any brains. I didn’t know what I was doing [at school],” Hopkins once said. “That’s why I became an actor.”

Hopkins went to the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where luminaries like Kenneth Branagh, Ralph Fiennes and Peter O’Toole have studied. He attracted the attention of his idol Laurence Olivier, who had him as his understudy at the Royal National Theatre by 1965. And yet, the stage — and its emphasis on theory — didn’t really thrill him. “In the theater, people talk,” Hopkins said in a 2011 interview. “Talk until the cows come home about journeys of discovery and about what [critic William] Hazlitt thought of a line of Shakespeare. I can’t stand it.”

But, perhaps more importantly, he wasn’t enamored with the stage because he had a higher aspiration — he wanted to be in movies. “I never felt at ease in a theater company,” he confessed to The Guardian. “I think it smacks too much of school. … In film, you have no illusions when you go on set. For me, working on film now is just about being relaxed, knowing the script so well that you don’t have to think about it. Then you rehearse in front of the crew, and there’s a wonderful … smell about it, a wonderful feeling of … in its own way, its own creativity. A charge in the air — a charge sounds too intense, but some sense of, I don’t know, atmosphere.”

Hopkins soon got his wish: He went from being Olivier’s understudy to having O’Toole handpick him to play Richard the Lionheart in the 1968 historical drama The Lion in Winter.

While shooting The Lion in Winter, he received a piece of acting advice from Katharine Hepburn that he’s held onto the rest of his career. “She said, ‘Don’t act … you don’t need to act. You’ve got a good face, you’ve got a good voice, you’ve got a big body. … Watch Spencer Tracy, watch the real American actors that never act — they just do it. Speak the lines and show up.’”

Hepburn’s keep-it-simple mantra resonated with Hopkins, who has always prided himself on being ready to deliver his dialogue with a minimum of fuss. And while Hopkins kept working in theater after The Lion in Winter, receiving acclaim in everything from Antony and Cleopatra to Equus, the electricity of live theater couldn’t keep him from eyeing TV and film roles. “I’ve been onstage in Shakespeare and seen people in the front row fast asleep,” he told The Telegraph. “That was the wake-up moment for me. That was my swan song. I left.”

He won a BAFTA TV Award for Best Actor as the lead in the 1972 BBC miniseries War & Peace, his profile rising in the process. But at the same time, Hopkins battled a crippling alcohol addiction, famously deciding to stop drinking after waking up in Arizona around Christmastime in 1975 without any memory of how he’d gotten there. Twenty-seven years later at an AA fundraiser in Malibu, he looked back on his alcoholism, declaring, “I’m glad I’m an alcoholic. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Of course I’m sorry for the hurt I caused people … but being an alcoholic was an amazing and powerful experience. There were some days when I’d drink a bottle of tequila and I didn’t care if I died. I loved tequila.”

His demons under control, he continued to act in movies, but the roles didn’t amount to much. He starred in the 1978 horror film Magic, in which he plays a magician who has a creepy mannequin as his sidekick — the twist being that he can’t control the mannequin, which has a mind of its own. (“Hopkins starts over the top and soars even higher,” Time Out’s Martyn Auty declared of the “hammed-up” movie.) He also was part of David Lynch’s Oscar-nominated The Elephant Man two years later, playing the kindly doctor who takes pity on John Hurt’s physically and emotionally deformed John Merrick. By the time Silence of the Lambs came around, however, he was hardly so in-demand as to be the obvious choice to play Hannibal the Cannibal. “I had resigned myself to becoming a respectable actor in London’s West End and the BBC for the rest of my life,” he would later admit.

At one point, Hurt, Hopkins’ Elephant Man costar, was supposed to be Lecter. But when Jonathan Demme, the director best known for concert films (Stop Making Sense) and comedies (Something Wild), signed on, he immediately wanted Hopkins for the part.

“I’ve admired him for a long time, and it was simple thinking for me,” Demme said at the time. “Tony, I felt, would be fantastic as Dr. Lecter for two basic reasons. One is that he’s a person who projects extreme intelligence — there’s something about him that makes you think, ‘Here’s a man who’s a lot smarter than you are.’ And of course that’s fundamental to Lecter — someone who is, indeed, brighter than almost everybody else he ever encounters. … And the other quality is Tony’s great humanity and compassion — that’s especially apparent in The Elephant Man.”

Hopkins’ performance as Lecter is just that — a performance, with the maniacal doctor toying with, mocking and (ultimately) encouraging Clarice (Jodie Foster) in her quest to catch a serial killer. Hopkins has always said he conceived the character rather easily. “I knew intuitively how to play him,” the actor told Empire in the summer of 1991. “I knew how he looked and how he sounded. There were two, maybe three voices that I heard. I thought of him as a combination of Katharine Hepburn, Truman Capote and HAL from 2001.”

That blend of confident, haughty personae turned Lecter into a sophisticate who just so happened to enjoy eating people’s livers. Lecter was supremely proud of his superior intelligence, and Hopkins played him with the appropriate regal cockiness.

For the performance, Hopkins won an Academy Award, but also something even more monumental: immortality. Brian Cox had previously portrayed Lecter in 1986’s Manhunter — but after Hopkins’ turn, the earlier incarnation became a forgotten footnote. Decades later, Lecter remains one of the quintessential modern monsters — a mixture of brains and madness who’s both appealing and revolting. Hopkins would play Lecter in two other movies, Hannibal and Red Dragon, and soon Lambs parodies and references were everywhere — from film to The Simpsons to musical theater.

Years later, Hopkins still seemed overwhelmed by Hannibal’s ascension to cultural phenomenon. “I had a hunch that it would be one of those personalities that would catch on,” he said around the release of 2002’s Red Dragon, “but I had no idea that it would take off in this way.” He helped turn the character into a legendary villain — and in turn, Hannibal Lecter gave the well-respected actor what he thought he’d never achieve: Hopkins was now a legitimate movie star.

At first, he parlayed that into a fleet of terrific roles. He’s fantastic in two Merchant-Ivory films of the early 1990s (Howards End and The Remains of the Day), and he’s a mesmerizing, albeit unconventional Richard Nixon in Oliver Stone’s grand tragedy Nixon. But that string of impressive performances, which allowed him to showcase his stripped-down intensity, soon went by the wayside. He started playing iconic figures in popcorn films like The Mask of Zorro, in which his original Zorro hands over the reins (and the mask) to newcomer Antonio Banderas. And he was asked to add some generic British class to movies like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Meet Joe Black and The Wolfman.

More recently, the elegance of his craft has been shoveled into father-figure roles in a Thor or Noah, as if Hopkins’ very presence guarantees a patina of quality or artistic seriousness. (To be fair, he’s also the ominous creative director on HBO’s Westworld.) This career development has undoubtedly been good for Hopkins’ bank account, but it’s been hell on his legacy. And it’s still happening: Next Friday, he’ll be in Collide, a terrible-looking thriller in which he plays the bad guy.

The disposability of so many of these recent roles is depressing, each one of them slowly chipping away at the his Hannibal Lecter legacy. It almost makes me wish that Hopkins, the then-relative unknown, had made The Silence of the Lambs and walked away. Instead, he carries a heavy dose of Hannibal’s hammy showmanship into every new part.

“I’ve never considered myself a great actor,” he claimed in 2013. “I’m a fluke. I work hard and I see through the bullshit and to this day I have massive energy; I think it keeps a youthfulness in me.” Which is good, since he keeps working at a steady clip — even though we’ll compare everything he ever does to Lecter. But then again, what else can he do — stop?

Actually, an interviewer once put that question to the now 79-year-old Hopkins: Had he ever considered retiring? Hopkins thought of his idol and mentor Olivier. “My father retired too early; he was dead at 73,” Hopkins replied. “I did The Bounty with Olivier. We were in his trailer, he was 76, he’d been very ill, and I said, ‘Why do you do it?’ He said, ‘I’d die if I didn’t.’”