Hopkins beats Olivier as Britain's best actor

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The Independent Culture

Sir Anthony's performances as the serial killer Hannibal Lecter and Stevens the emotionally constricted butler in The Remains of the Day turned him into an international superstar.

Such is his gravitas, Hopkins has the distinction of being cast by Hollywood in the roles of two presidents of the United States - Richard Nixon in Nixon and John Quincy Adams in Amistad. He received Oscar nominations for both. But it was his performance in The Silence of the Lambs that earned him an Academy Award and, with it, global fame.

Critics may find his elevation above Laurence Olivier surprising, for the great Shakespearean player is interred at Westminster Abbey - only the second actor to be honoured in such a way. During his career, Lord Olivier was nominated for 11 Oscars and was the founding director of the National Theatre - where so many of the other actors in the list went on to thrill audiences.

But even though he worked until his death in 1989, he had not had a major film role for nearly a decade before, dramatically reducing his fan base.

Sir Sean Connery, who was voted into third place ahead of Sir Alec Guinness, enjoyed a successful career in the early days of television before thrilling the cinematic world with six outings as James Bond. He won an Oscar for his portrayal of the Chicago cop Jimmy Malone in the 1987 film The Untouchables. Sir Michael Caine, another product of the 1960s British cinema renaissance, was voted fifth.

Dame Judi Dench headed the list of distinguished female actors. With a clutch of Baftas to her name, a distinguished stage career and loyal television following and she was rewarded with an Oscar for best supporting actress in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love in which she played Queen Elizabeth I. In a stamp of her versatility, the following year she won a Tony Award for best actress in David Hare's Broadway play, Amy's View.

Julie Walters comes second on the women's list. She is the only actor - male or female - to make the top five not to have received a title from the Queen, although she was appointed OBE in 1999.

The Birmingham-born actress came to mainstream prominence in the 1983 film Educating Rita - a role she adapted from her stage performance and which successfully exploited her comic talents. She went on to demonstrate a prodigious ability for pathos - on both stage and screen - earning her a huge following.

Jeremy Austin of The Stage newspaper said that, of all the stars named, it was Dame Judi who would be regarded by the public as the greatest British actor of them all.

"She has been successful pretty much in everything that she has ever done - on the stage, in light-hearted television and in film blockbusters," he said. "The perception is that you have made it if you are in a movie. But maybe the public now thinks about how many big American actors cross the Atlantic to appear on the West End stage. Performing six nights a week, plus matinees week after week - that is the test of a truly great actor."

The poll was commissioned by the Old Vic Theatre and the wine-maker Mouton Cadet. Six thousand people were polled.

The 20 best British actors

1) Anthony Hopkins

2) Laurence Olivier

3) Sean Connery

4) Alec Guinness

5) Michael Caine

6) Richard Burton

7) David Jason

8) Cary Grant

9) John Mills

10) Ian McKellen

11) Oliver Reed

12) John Thaw

13) Ewan McGregor

14) Peter Sellers

15) John Gielgud

16) Ray Winston

17) Robert Carlyle

18) Kenneth Branagh

19) David Niven

20) Peter O'Toole

The 20 best British actresses

1) Judi Dench

2) Julie Walters

3) Elizabeth Taylor

4) Maggie Smith

5) Julie Andrews

6) Helen Mirren

7) Emma Thompson

8) Vanessa Redgrave

9) Joan Collins

10) Thora Hird

11) Julie Christie

12) Diana Dors

13) Kathy Burke

14) Margaret Rutherford

15) Samantha Morton

16) Victoria Wood

17) Kristin Scott Thomas

18) Helena Bonham-Carter

19) Juliet Stevenson

20) Kate Winslet