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Best of British Biographies – Anthony Hopkins

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There are ways of saying how old you are without saying how old you are. For instance, if you were to say that the first Doctor Who you remember watching is William Hartnell, then you’re of a significantly more mature vintage than if you remember, say, David Tennant. I was thinking there’d be a similar correlation with James Bonds but those films are replayed endlessly and never in sequence so you could be a teenager and still have Sean Connery as your first Bond. 

Then, there is an actor who, despite not having appeared in either of those franchises is, seemingly, ubiquitous. I refer, of course, to Sir Philip Anthony Hopkins CBE.

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The younger elements will know him as Odin from the Thor strands of the MCU or Robert Ford from the TV reboot of Westworld. The vast majority of people will know him as the foremost incarnation of Hannibal Lecter… Brian Cox may disagree but that’s by the by.

Personally, my first memory of Anthony Hopkins was way back in 1972 when he played Pierre Bezukhov in the BBC’s marathon adaptation of War & Peace.  I remember it well as, back in the early seventies, a miniseries wasn’t the common occurrence that they are today and there was an introductory programme saying how they had nearly fifteen hours to tell the story, whereas previous cinematic versions had to struggle to squeeze everything into a few hours.

Everything Depends On Upbringing

Back then Anthony Hopkins was a fresh faced young man and I had more than a little crush on Angela Down, who played Maria Bolkonskaya. I remember sitting with my mother watching this each week.

Remember younglings, this was before the cloud, Tivo, or even domestic VHS were actual things. If you wanted to see something you had to be there every week for the twenty weeks, or whatever, it ran for.

No shouting “pause it for a minute” while you make a brew, no saving it for when you got home, no saving it up and binge watching when you had a few days off. You had to commit to being sat down waiting at, for example, half past eight every Thursday evening, from September through the holidays and into the next year. That sort of commitment meant that stuff had to be good to make sure it was actually watched.

And Hopkins was good! Awkward, ungainly, and bespectacled, he reminded me of my fifteen year old self and I was riveted to the series. I actually went out and bought the book but never got past the first page. However, the TV version kept me glued to the screen from start to finish. It was probably a combination of seeing myself in Pierre and with Maria, or vice versa, but I was enthralled and never missed a second.

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And, unknown to me, was the start of my life with Anthony Hopkins in it. Sadly, Angela Down doesn’t get seen so often but, when life gives you lemons, etc.

1972 – War & Peace

Philip Anthony Hopkins was born in Port Talbot in an area of South Wales where I can also trace my roots; within ten miles as the crow flies. So…Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton, Tom Ellis, Matthew Rhys, Rob Brydon, and my dad were all born within spitting distance of each other. How come that I never managed to inherit any of the talent that was sloshing around the area? Actually, I’ve never tried acting so, who knows?

But, then again, I’ve heard myself on various recorded interviews and podcasts and know that I am nowhere near the levels of timbre, tone, or resonance of any of the aforementioned thespians.

When The Pupil Is Ready The Master Will Appear.

Another thing that the more accomplished film and TV actors have in common is that they tend to start off treading the boards of a live theatre and Hopkins is no exception having made his debut at the Palace in Swansea in 1960 before going on to spend five years in repertory. It was while in rep that he was spotted by none other than Laurence Olivier, who invited him to join the National Theatre as his understudy.

The inevitable happened in 1967 when Olivier was struck down by appendicitis during a production of Strindberg’s The Dance Of Death and Hopkins took to the stage in his place. Afterward, Olivier wrote in his memoirs that “A new young actor in the company of exceptional promise named Anthony Hopkins was understudying me and walked away with the part of Edgar like a cat with a mouse between its teeth.”

And the close relationship between mentor and student would pay off later on. In 1991 a restoration of Spartacus (1960) was produced in which scenes were reintroduced which had been cut from the picture’s 1967 reissue. One such segment has Marcus Crassus (Laurence Olivier) attempting to seduce the slave Antoninus (Tony Curtis). However, the original soundtrack for this segment had been lost.

So, with Olivier having died in 1989, Anthony Hopkins imitated the voice of Olivier for the scene’s re-created soundtrack. Presumably, Tony Curtis supplied his own voice.

“Difficult” Should Be A Walk In The Park For You.

Obviously, it wouldn’t be long until the silver screen studios started beckoning and Hopkins made his cinema debut in 1968’s The Lion In Winter, for which he was BAFTA nominated as best supporting actor.

From that appearance until War & Peace five years later, Mr Hopkins had a fair few acting credits under his belt on the stage and the large and small screens. The range covered Shakespeare, Dickens, Ibsen, and Department S. Purely by coincidence two of those roles were the same historical figure…David Lloyd George in the Churchill biopic Young Winston, as well as in the TV miniseries The Edwardians. 

1980 – The Elephant Man

You Do Not Own This Man. Now STOP IT!

Whether or not the two outings as Lloyd George gave him a taste for portraying real life characters is not something I know, but he has gone on to play quite a few…Wat Tyler (Medieval England: The Peasant’s Revolt, 1969), Charles Dickens (The Great Inimitable Mr Dickens, 1970), Bruno Hauptmann (The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case, 1976), Yitzhak Rabin (Victory At Entebbe, 1976), Frederick Treves (The Elephant Man, 1980), Adolf Hitler (The Bunker, 1980), William Bligh (The Bounty, 1984), Donald Campbell (Across The Lake, 1988), John Harvey Kellogg (The Road To Wellville, 1994), Richard Nixon (Nixon, 1995), Pablo Picasso (Surviving Picasso, 1996), John Quincey Adams (Amistad, 1997), and Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 2012) to name but a few. 

Personally speaking, I think that portraying a real person is always a more onerous task, as there is always a certain level of accuracy that can be held against the role so it shows up the skill level of the actor involved.

There is always a certain amount of latitude with well known but fictional characters such as Othello, Van Helsing, Hrothgar, Methuselah, Lear, and Odin; people will have a greater or lesser detailed view on the characters depending on how much they’ve read of the source material when it is, ultimately, only the original author that truly knows how they meant the character to behave.

We’re Gonna Be A Staaaaaaar!

1978 – Magic

Another early Anthony Hopkins role that I remember well is his starring turn in 1978’s Magic. In this film, Hopkins plays Charles “Corky” Withers. Corky is an aspiring stage magician who, needing a gimmick to help him stand out, branches out and becomes a combined ventriloquist and magician; Hopkins actually learnt some magic tricks and studied ventriloquism. As things progress Corky becomes more and more deranged and Fats, the dummy, starts taking control.

If you thought that Hopkins had demonstrated the peak of madness as Hannibal Lecter then you would be mistaken… Corky Withers is spine-chillingly demented and garnered Hopkins another BAFTA nomination but, this time, for best actor alongside a Golden Globe nomination.

Ready When You Are, Sergeant Pembry

After that descent into madness, Hopkins’ star was, most definitely, in the ascendant. Over the next decade he was, seemingly, never out of the public eye with an average of three appearances a year on TV, film, and the stage, and then it happened.

Only the third film ever to win the “Big Five” Oscars, The Silence Of The Lambs happened. Thirty years on and it seems impossible that anyone else could play Hannibal Lecter (Shut up, Brian Cox!) but, as is often the case, others were considered for the role. By others I mean Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Louis Gossett Jr, Gene Hackman, John Hurt, Jeremy Irons, Derek Jacobi, John Lithgow, and Jack Nicholson were all up for the part; all very capable and experienced actors but could they have made the same impression and walked off with the Oscar?

1991 – The Silence Of The Lambs

Whoever else might have got the role, it would have been different.

Jodie Foster claims that during the first meeting between Lecter and Clarice, Sir Anthony’s mocking of her southern accent was improvised on the spot. Foster’s horrified reaction was genuine since she felt personally attacked, but she later thanked Hopkins for generating such an honest reaction in her.

The other well-known scene is the fast slurping-type sound that Hannibal Lecter does as part of the infamous census taker scene. Hopkins did it spontaneously during filming, and everyone thought it was great, but, apparently, Jonathan Demme became annoyed with it after a while.

2011 – Thor

It’s Hard To Let Go, Isn’t It?

From then on Sir Anthony’s career just went on gaining strength and showed his range and versatility. Comedy turns in The Road To Wellville and RED2. Action hero turns in The Mask Of Zorro and The Edge. Legal Thrillers Fracture and Instinct are suspenseful in different ways. Literary adaptations included Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Remains Of The Day.

He also held his own as Odin in the MCU and Mission Commander Swanbeck in Mission: Impossible II. Throw in that he redeveloped the Hannibal Lecter character even to the extent of re-doing Brian Cox’s take on the character and changing Manhunter back to the novel’s original title Red Dragon.

Not only does the man have range but he is still going strong to this day.

2016 – WestWorld

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5 responses to “Best of British Biographies – Anthony Hopkins”

  1. I don’t think I knew who Hopkins was until *Silence of the Lambs.* But I’m an American, so that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

    That’s an interesting list of other actors who were considered for the role. I don’t think anyone could have done it better, but I think John Hurt would have been an interesting choice.

    But no one could have played Odin as well as Hopkins.

    BTW, did you know that Catherine Zeta-Jones was born in Swansea?

    1. Most definitely Odin, I agree. He is also convincing as Thor’s biological father. I never understood why they didn’t put Thor’s other brother Balder in the mix, but the Asgardian cast they have is already so big…I hope we at least get more Lady Sif, since the Warriors Three had a bridge dropped on them. But back to Odin.

      There were two Odin actors on Xena: Warrior Princess over the seasons, and neither felt right to me. Hopkins nailed it…in Ragnarok, he also plays Odin who is really Loki pretending to be Odin, and it’s adorable. Great comedic moment for a usually serious actor.

  2. Rob Williams Avatar
    Rob Williams

    As is so often the way, it’s not just time but location that can affect your perception of an actor. I mean…how many of Gérard Depardieu’s eighty or so appearances are you aware of before Green Card?

    Oh yes! The other actors considered for roles is always fascinating. I always wonder what the first Rambo film (First Blood) would have been like if they’d gone with Dustin Hoffman instead of Sly Stallone…

    And I did know that CZJ came from the area but I was trying to concentrate on the male talent. In fact she actually went to school with one of the people I mentioned, Rob Brydon.

  3. Rob Williams Avatar
    Rob Williams

    Just watching him in Fracture. He’s awesome! Just as manipulative and machiavellian as Hannibal Lector.

  4. Rob Williams Avatar
    Rob Williams

    And just spotted the divine Fiona Shaw as the judge!

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