He is not just a star, he's a British star, which is undisputably a rare thing. And he is a star who behaves like a star, with a charming, cheesy smile his invariable response to the column inches chronicling his caddish behaviour. As a ladykiller, he's deadly, with a hit-list reputedly including Winona Ryder, Julia Roberts, Greta Scacchi and Sinead O'Connor. The last-known was the fabulous and tempestuous French actress, Isabelle Adjani. It lasted five years, off and on. Here's how it ended. She becomes pregnant; he says it's all over - and he says it in a fax.

He cannot be pinned down, but then a star should be untouchable. We admire his unpredictability, his Byronic impulsiveness. At a memorial service for his mentor, the agent Julian Belfrage, he gets up to deliver a eulogy: he gives instead an impromptu rendition of an Irish ballad. Playing Hamlet at the National, he breaks down and leaves the stage; he has never appeared in a theatre since.

He is famously shy of publicity. He would say that he lets his film roles do his talking, each one so different and tortuously wrought as to seem the work of different actors. The pompadoured gay punk in My Beautiful Laundrette, the film which conferred fame in 1985. The crippled Christy Brown in My Left Foot (which won him an Oscar for Best Actor in 1990). The muscular frontiersman, Hawkeye, in The Last of the Mohicans, his body retooled; and then remodelled again, playing Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four in In the Name of the Father - spending sleepless nights in a prison cell, fed on slops and verbal abuse. And now a new film, of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, about the Salem witchcraft trials. Who will he be this time?

Each film role, each eccentric or romantic episode, has added to his allure, a tantalising snapshot of his real self. But, at 38, he remains a rebel on the run. Here, those who have gained more lingering glimpses offer their impressions of Daniel Day-Lewis, from belligerent boyhood, the troubled son of the late poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, to matine idol manhood. Garry Jenkins

Martin Amis

Cecil Day-Lewis died in 1972 at the Amis family home in Hertfordshire when Daniel was 15

Dan bore up very well, from what I could see, but he was kind of inward, as actors tend to be, even then. I think we might have played some croquet, but I did not see his allegro side much, it was very sombre.

He has gone on to amaze me. I didn't sense it then; I just thought he was a wonderfully good-looking young man with an easy manner. I remember when I saw him in The Bounty, I was tickled, astonished. Cecil would have thought it was wonderful. He uses his physi- cal presence very well. He's not frightened to abase himself on screen: he'll look weak and undignified - that cowering naked in Stars and Bars. He does not have that false dignity cer-tain actors have.

Jenny Dormer

Former nanny at the Day-Lewis home in Greenwich

There were certainly two sides to him. When he was downstairs with his parents, he was always so sweet and good, so angelically pretty. But when they went out, he used to whack me and [his sister] Tamasin and hang onto her hair. He was a very sheltered little boy when I started there. Suppressed, I think.

There was a great distance between Cecil and the children. They were very much in awe of him. If we heard him coming up the stairs towards the nursery, it was very tense. As soon as his parents left the house Daniel would run downstairs and pinch his father's cigarettes. Sometimes Tamasin and I would say, "go on then, smoke two", and he would.

I remember seeing Daniel in a pub, the Richard I in Greenwich. I had my son in a pram, it was a summer's night. I'd gone for a drink with Tamasin, who I stayed in touch with after leaving the family. He must have been 17 or 18. I was shocked by his language and lack of charm. He was swearing like a trooper. I said that going to Bedales hadn't done him much good. He was very arrogant. I said, "You were a real little bastard when you were little." And Tamasin said: "Yes, nothing much has changed, has it, Daniel?"

Jill Balcon

His mother

His school [Sevenoaks, in Kent] got us on the phone and put Daniel on, and he was sobbing, saying how unhappy he was at his single-sex school. And then he said: "What's more, I'm sex-starved." We found that part so funny.

Sean Day-Lewis

Journalist and half-brother, Cecil's son by his first marriage

There was always this feeling that he had to do well for our father, even though he wasn't there, whereas anything he did would have been marvellous as far as Jill is concerned.

David Thompson

BBC drama producer and Day-Lewis's English and drama teacher at Bedales in Hampshire, where he went after fleeing Sevenoaks

There was a superbly dangerous quality to him. I always suspected he was involved in a totally brilliant prank which involved picking up my Renault 4 from the car park and actually carrying it into my classroom. They got it in with three centimetres to spare. I've never been able to prove it was him.

Simon Dunstan

Former flatmate

I first met him when he was doing Dracula down in Bristol. He was going around in a dogtooth checked suit, his hair was really short and dyed blond, and he looked really striking. He used to dress up as Keith Richards a lot; he'd wear a bandanna around the knee.

He wanted to be Gielgud. He saw himself as a tragic person, a tragic hero.When he was working, he was brilliant; when he wasn't, he'd be very gloomy. Any kind of personal exposure was difficult for him. He'd go to parties arranged by his agent and not say a word all evening.

Penelope Dening

Author, journalist

I went to dinner with him, with a boyfriend of mine, when he was in Another Country at the Queen's Theatre. We went backstage to his dressing room, and he was surrounded by this clique of white-gloved men in Fifties clothing and spats. They wore weird make-up and their hair was greased back. Daniel called them his "backstage Johnnies". He said they came every night to see the show. I wondered whether he was gay, but my boyfriend said "oh, no".

Sheila Hancock

Artistic director of the 1984 Royal Shakespeare Company tour. Day-Lewis appeared in its Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream

His real penchant was for character work. He was at his best when he had a character to play; dreadful if you asked him to play a romantic lead. In A Midsummer Night's Dream he was absolutely superb as Thespe, who has to dress up as a woman. It was one of the best performances I ever remember seeing. His Romeo left something to be desired. He was uneasy with the whole situation.

If ever I needed someone to do an extra workshop or something, Dan was always a volunteer. He was good with the kids; they empathised with him. He has an understand- ing of sensitive kids, which I think all actors have, anyway, because they have all been difficult children. He's a typical Bedalian: they walk away from things when they don't like them. I sent my daughters to Bedales as a result of working with Dan and another boy who was in the company. They were both so lovely as men that I thought, well, this is the school for my girls.

I get awfully upset when I hear he's going through a bad time. But this business is hard for people who are sensitive.

Stephen Frears

Film director, to whom Day-Lewis wrote a threatening letter, warning of the dire consequences if he were not cast in My Beautiful Laundrette

I guess he wanted to prove he wasn't posh, that he could be nasty. I thought, well, if he wants it that badly. Actors are like that, you know. A good part - it's like sex to them. They can smell it.

Gordon Warnecke

Co-star in My Beautiful Laundrette

We didn't make a big thing of being incredibly macho around each other during the love scenes. I was smoking at the time, so I carried a bottle of Listerine in my back pocket. He took a swig, too, occasionally. There's a scene at the back of the laundrette where he dribbles champagne out of his mouth into mine - that was his idea, that shows his inventiveness.

We both played for the TV entertainers football team. He's a winger, fairly nifty. Some of the football teams we played were very hard, and some of us would pull out because you knew you could get injured. If you break your leg one weekend, that's you out of any film or theatre for six months. But Dan played for quite a while, even after A Room with a View.

After a game, Dan would just stand in the corner and have a pint with us. There were a lot of EastEnders and Coronation Street actors in the team. All the boys and girls [wanting autographs] would go up to Michael Lavelle (Kevin Webster in Coronation Street) and Adam Woodyatt (Ian Beale in EastEnders). They didn't approach Dan.

Hanif Kureishi

Writer, My Beautiful Laundrette

He was always talking about wanting to give up acting and make fucking furniture.

Daniel Day-Lewis on relationships

I've always allowed the work to dictate to me, by necessity, the circumstances of my life. It's a marriage.

Tamasin Day-Lewis

Sister and television documentary maker

We live inside our own heads, which are normally overrun with demons of one sort or another... But he's certainly much more fragile than me. I've had to look after him at times.

Madeleine Stowe

Co-star in The Last of the Mohicans

Daniel would carry his gun around all the time. When he went to lunch, when he went to the bathroom, he'd have that gun with him. He's sort of not of this world. And you can't read, unless you know him very well, when he's not feeling right or frustrated.

Joan Juliet Buck

Writer, editor of French Vogue, and a friend of Isabelle Adjani (Buck spent time with Day-Lewis in LA and New York after The Last of the Mohicans as he prepared for The Age of Innocence. She wrote this in the New Yorker)

In Los Angeles, he was long-haired, rangy. In New York, he checked himself into a small hotel that approximated a grand house of the 19th century. For a while there, he was himself. His shoulder-length hair was now just below his ears, and on his cheeks grew impressive Bismarck whiskers. Then, abruptly, he was gone.

A little later, it turned out that he had never left but was now registered as Newland Archer.

He wore a white shirt buttoned to the top, and a tie, and a vest, and a jacket. In the umbrella stand in the suite's tiny foyer rested a walking stick, and on it a homburg, with the thick rolled rim that you see on no other hat. He was playing Faur's Requiem, and the infinite repetitive sadness of the piece hung low in the room, like a particular kind of weather.

The suite seemed to be the chambers of a faintly aesthetic and very stiff gentleman of Old New York, who leafed through a thick book of poems, found one called Stephanotis, and produced from the next room some 14 little bottles of cologne, which he arranged on the low table. Some had been sent from Paris by Isabelle Adjani. One smelled of hay, another of herbs, another of after-shave; there was Blenheim Bouquet and Floris's Stephanotis. He was concerned, in a playful yet entirely serious way, with finding Archer's scent. The surfeit of odours made one giddy.

The book was the first complete edition of C Day-Lewis's poems, published in England on the 20th anniversary of his death. He kept opening it to look for specific things - poems or something else. He quoted the poem called Futility. And he talked about death. In parting, he said, "Another day, another death", and it was a sort of joke; but the willed, lugubrious atmosphere of the room had taken over, a flirtation with misery had become just misery. Not quite Newland Archer, not even an actor preparing. Something else.

Says Buck: I knew him a bit through Isabelle Adjani, a friend of mine, Usually, when I spend so much time on somebody and write a good piece, I get a note. I thought he might send flowers, a note, a thank you. I've had absolutely no contact with him since, I really don't know why.

Gerry Conlon

One of the Guildford Four and the author of Proved Innocent, the subject of Day-Lewis's role in In the Name of the Father

We must have been together for three to four months while he was preparing to play me. He used to come to my flat in Islington: really strange times, like seven or eight in the morning. He was very, very unobtrusive. I haven't told even my mother the real story about prison, but I felt so secure in his presence that it just came flowing out.

He's extremely shy until you get to know him; then he can be quite a character. He was quite proud of being a member of the F Troop at Millwall. We used to go out and have a few beers, and suddenly he just used to let out this roar, "WALLAH", just something he invented.

I haven't heard from him for a couple of months. But he'll ring my mum up and ask her how I am, how the family is, send her flowers.

Joey Cashman

Conlon's agent

Daniel's very olde worldey. When he was writing to Isabelle Adjani, he used wax and a seal on the envelope - he has a ring with a seal on it.

On a social occasion, he tends to drift towards the waiters; he's not a starfucker in that way - although he is! Julia Roberts was flying in to London and Dublin, on the quiet, at the time we were making In the Name of the Father. He seemed to be completely flippant about her: a pretty face can only interest you for an hour.

He's definitely deeper than the average pizza. He's a trust-him-with- your-life kind of guy. He offered Gerry numerous things - I think he offered to buy him a place once, but Gerry declined.

Helen Gummer

Editor of The Fire Within, by Garry Jenkins (to be published in paperback on 7 July)

He rang me, explaining that he didn't want it to go ahead. I think it was stuff about his father that really upset him. He's the only subject of a biography who has ever picked up the phone to me himself or herself. Maybe it was naivete, maybe it was nous - he thought he could talk me out of it.

Daniel Day-Lewis, on publicity

Interviews are God's great joke on me.

David Puttnam

The head of Columbia Pictures when Day-Lewis made Stars and Bars

He is his own guy and he makes his own choices. I think that's his secret. An awful lot of actors choose a part based on the number of pages they appear in the script.

Pete Postlethwaite

Co-star, In the Name of the Father

I didn't know whether he was being Gerry Conlon or Dan Day-Lewis half the time. I went back to being Pete at the weekends, but he didn't - he stayed.

Sir John Gielgud

Daniel Day-Lewis has what every actor in Hollywood wants: talent. And what every actor in England wants: looks.

The greening of Daniel Day-Lewis

In 1987, Day-Lewis applied for, and got, an Irish passport. In 1993, he spent £500,000 on Castlekevin, a country house in the County Wicklow town of Annamoe, the former home of the playwright John Synge. His decision raised eyebrows among some friends. "I knew Daniel before he was Irish," Stephen Frears jibed. "I never knew Frears before he was a facetious slob," his old friend snapped back.

Dan Juan: seven women with whom he has been "romantically linked"

Greta Scacchi, Juliette Binoche, Tilda Swinton, Julia Roberts, Sinead O'Connor, Winona Ryder, Kate Moss

Both are darkly exotic, with combustible genes - she German-Jewish, he Irish-Jewish - and difficult relationships with their fathers: "You can't be an actress", she has said, "if you haven't had the feeling of being abandoned as a child." Like him, she hurls herself almost masochistically into her work, suffers from wanderlust, and loathes publicity, perhaps with more cause after the French press reported she was dying from Aids a few years ago.

They met in 1989, and it's been on-off ever since. In 1993, after one of their frequent break-ups, she said: "He has great Irish charm, and used to give me the most poetic gifts. I'm leaving a mirage."

Last summer, they were re-united at Parisian designer Jacques Grange's house in St Remy de Provence, where, apparently, their baby was conceived. Early this year, their declining relationship was conducted by fax. Just as she was about to give birth - her second child, his first - he sent the fax which ended the affair.

Disparate Dan:

seven roles he has rejected

Simon Templar in a remake of The Saint

Lestat (the Tom Cruise role) in Interview With the Vampire

The Sicilian

St Francis of Assisi

The lead role in Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient

Vincent Vega (the John Travolta role) in Pulp Fiction

Mass murderer Dennis Nilsen.

Day-Lewis as Hamlet at the National

On 5 September, 1989, during his 66th performance, he walked off stage in Act Five. Having, apparently, suffered a nervous breakdown, he went to live with his sister for a while.

A National Theatre actor, who wishes to remain anonymous

I've never seen anyone take the reviews so personally as he did. It was like he had been kicked in the head. As an actor, you always have to have an off-stage life sorted out. A friend of mine said that, months after we had opened, he went round to see Dan at his house. It was a Saturday afternoon, when he was not working, and he was still sitting on the floor with the text of Hamlet. You can't do Hamlet like you are living it, otherwise you go around killing people.

Richard Eyre, director of Hamlet

It was like asking him to stand centrestage and do archaeology on himself. In retrospect, Hamlet was the last part I should have asked him to play.

The friends

He is very close to the directors Richard Eyre, Pat O'Connor and Jim Sheridan. In January this year, he lost his most pugnacious protector, the English agent Julian Belfrage, who died of cancer aged 60. Gene Parseghian of the William Morris Agency brokers the Hollywood money deals, while Belfrage, son of the Second World War newsreader Bruce Belfrage, provided bonhomie and fatherly advice.

At his March memorial service in St James's, Piccadilly, a haunted-looking Day-Lewis was expected to read the poignant Lights Out by the war poet Edward Thomas. But he told a story of how he and Belfrage had visited a faith healer in Doncaster, and then burst spontaneously into song. He chose an Irish ballad, resonant with echoes of his own, eventful young life, called The Parting Glass

Oh, all the comrades e'er I had

They're sorry for my going away

And all the sweethearts e're I had

They'd wished me one more day to stay

But since it falls unto my lot

That I should rise and you should not

I gently rise and softly call

Goodnight and joy be with you all

Traditional lyrics courtesy of Ossian Publications, Cork.