In a meaty, although unauthorised, new biography on Hopkins, Michael Feeney Callan traces his subject's rebirth - one which led to his Oscar-winning performance as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, to a knighthood and to his present status as one of Britain's great post-war actors.
Born near Port Talbot in South Wales on New Year's Eve 1937, he is the only child of the late Dick Hopkins, who owned a thriving local bakery-cum-delicatessen, and Muriel, a powerful, protective woman to whom he remains deeply attached. Much to his Dad's irritation, the shy and introverted Anthony, who loved Russian literature, had to be pushed out to play with other boys on the street. He also showed a stunning lack of academic ability at his excellent grammar school: 'One wondered what on earth would become of him,' an old teacher admits thinking as the teenage Hopkins set out in the world armed with just one O-level, in English.
A door opened and the future came rushing in when Hopkins joined a theatrical group at the local YMCA in Port Talbot in 1955. He had quietly watched the players at work, night after night, for several weeks. He revealed a gift for mimicry, mannerisms and movement that almost amounted to genius. A stint at the Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff was followed by two years at Rada, after which Hopkins acted in rep. He earned a place at the National Theatre by showing his 'bloody nerve' to the director Laurence Olivier by auditioning with the deathbed scene from Othello, which Olivier himself was then performing.
By the late Sixties, Hopkins had progressed to lead roles, working with the great British theatre directors of the day - Olivier, Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson - and also gave a powerful first film performance as the angry, unstable Richard the Lionheart in The Lion in Winter. Slowly, however, hefty bouts of drinking, brought about by his overweening ambition combined with terrifying insecurities, rendered him almost unemployable in Britain and caused the break-up of his first marriage. It was only in the Eighties, after film successes including Magic and The Elephant Man, that he returned in triumph from America to the National Theatre; there he played Antony in Antony and Cleopatra and King Lear, and starred in M Butterfly in the West End.
Hopkins's remarkable recovery and rise to international stardom are due in part to the support and love lavished on him by his self-effacing second wife, Jenni Lynton. An efficient former production assistant at Pinewood Studios, she abandoned the idea of having her own children in order to look after the enormous baby that was her husband. To this day, she has to make sure he has money, credit cards and a front-door key when he pops out. She has even had to put up with her husband switching off the lights and going up to bed in the middle of his own dinner party. But then, as she once said, 'He needs me so much, that's what counts.'
In return, Hopkins has by all accounts remained faithful: 'Jesus, Tony, all these gorgeous women] Why don't you cash in on this celebrity thing?' asked David Hare, when the stage door was choked with admirers after a performance of Pravda in 1985. 'Oh, no, no,' replied Hopkins, 'Get into that and you get into emotion. I don't want any of that.'
Hopkins once said that he thinks of himself as a cold fish who has a 'fuck 'em' philosophy towards his fellow human beings. It's not coldness so much as a compelling need to express his talent that has forced him to exclude almost all else. 'All I ever wanted was to achieve this . . . to get my name up there for the world to see,' he told his driver as they neared the Leicester Square cinema where Silence of the Lambs was showing. But for all his new-found fame, he is too complex and self-punishing ever to be entirely happy.