The Bite Stuff

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The year was 1967, and Peter O'Toole was preparing to co-star with Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter. One night in London, after a production of Chekhov's Three Sisters, O'Toole knocked on the dressing-room door of the young actor playing the brother. "O'Toole was standing there, two sheets to the wind, as they say," recalls the actor. "He said, ŚWould you like to be in a film?'"

Ever since he was a boy poring over issues of Look magazine with ads for shiny Buicks and Chryslers, ever since American G.I.s camped out in his childhood home in South Wales, providing chewing gum during the austere war years, the actor had dreamed of the U.S. The movies, he now knew, would be his ticket there; as an adult, as an actor, he had been influenced less by the titans of the British theater than by the naturalistic style of Marlon Brando and James Dean. Did he want to be in a film? Yes.

Never mind that when Anthony Hopkins went to audition for O'Toole the next day, the now sober actor didn't have a clue why he was there. Hopkins got the part, though, and since his debut as the petulant young Richard the Lionheart in The Lion in Winter, he has turned out nearly 100 finely tuned performances for screens both big and small, including the egotistical artist of Surviving Picasso; the tragically flawed Commander in Chief of Nixon; the withdrawn butler in The Remains of the Day.

But there is only one role with which Hopkins, now 63, has haunted us: Hannibal the Cannibal-the very, very bad doctor with a taste for Chianti, fava beans and internal human organs-in 1991's The Silence of the Lambs. The critically acclaimed thriller not only salvaged Hopkins' lagging movie career, it also catapulted him from char-acter actor to bona fide movie star. The movie won five Oscars-including Best Actor (Hopkins), Best Actress (Jodie Foster) and Best Picture-and took a huge bite out of the box office. A decade later, the slickly subdued, eerily serene Dr. Hannibal Lecter still inhabits our nightmares because Hopkins knows that as an actor, "the quieter you are, the more terrifying it is."

Time passes. Things change. The doctor is back, meaner-and louder-than ever. The sequel to The Silence of the Lambs arrives in Australia on Feb. 15 upon a torrent of hype and great expectations. While Hopkins had only a few indelible scenes in Silence, in Hannibal he is front and center in the title role. The image of the red-eyed devil glowers on billboards all over the world. And the box-office well-being of the $80 million sequel depends almost entirely on audiences' fascination with Hopkins' character. The movie itself? You will love it or hate it, and you will never eat off someone else's plate again.

The man at the center of all this hoopla seems not to give a hoot about its reception. Or at least he is trying to appear not to. Hopkins can be a volatile guy, but he usually keeps his temper under control. "It's a bit of a gamble doing a sequel," he says, making the understatement one morning as he sits at the kitchen table in his Pacific Palisades, Calif., home with eclectic art on the walls and a sprawling view of the ocean. "I don't want to think about it. I learn my lines, show up, make sure the check's in the mail."

This check was for around $10 million. With two wary studios (Universal and MGM) sharing the cost of the rocky production, everyone else involved with Hannibal has been rather tense for quite some time. As soon as Silence became a hit, legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis, 81, began his vigil for novelist Thomas Harris' next Hannibal Lecter book. De Laurentiis had "first negotiation, last refusal" rights for any movie containing the Lecter character, as he had produced Manhunter, the 1986 adaptation of Harris' Red Dragon, in which Lecter made his first screen appearance in the form of actor Brian Cox. Manhunter didn't perform at the box office, so De Laurentiis later passed on Silence. Should you get invited to the De Laurentiises' for dinner, don't bring that up.

Harris finally turned in Hannibal in 1999. De Laurentiis quickly bought the book for $10 million. "Worth every penny!" says De Laurentiis, whose English is obscured by his ornate Italian accent. After six decades in the movie industry (his credits include La Strada, Barbarella and the 1990 remake of The Desperate Hours, in which Hopkins co-starred), De Laurentiis is, like Hannibal, unstoppable. Asked what would have happened if his old friend Hopkins had turned down the sequel, he answers quickly, "We open with Hannibal in plastic surgery!"

One's affinity for the novel (and the movie) depends on one's taste for violent, rather sophisticated camp. Lecter is now on the loose in Florence, Italy. Back in the States, there's a crazy, deformed, jillionaire pedophile named Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), who years earlier peeled off his own face while under the spell of Lecter. Verger plans to capture Lecter and feed him to a herd of vicious swine. Verger will use Clarice Starling, the fbi agent who has a mysterious bond with the fugitive, as bait. Lecter is up to his usual tricks: shopping, disemboweling, forcing a victim to eat his own brains, that kind of thing. Finally, in the novel Clarice apparently becomes a cannibal herself. Don't worry: we haven't given away the ending of the film; screenwriters David Mamet (State and Main) and Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List) have changed it, but it's still really gross.

Critics bruised the novel pretty badly, but Hopkins got a kick out of it: "I thought it was way over the top but interesting." Foster wasn't so taken. Early on, De Laurentiis refused to pay her $20 million asking price, then after she read the screenplay, she opted out, saying she preferred to direct a movie of her own. "She need the picture more than we need her," scoffs the producer. "I believe she's wrong for this movie. We have a different story, mature woman with sex appeal, and I don't think it's right for Jodie Foster."

The book also failed to seduce Jonathan Demme and Ted Tally, the Oscar-winning director and writer of Silence. Director Ridley Scott, however, read Harris' manuscript while shooting Gladiator in Malta and signed on right away. "I saw in the material humor and romanticism," says Scott. "I think the first team missed that." Zaillian says he took on the writing challenge "because it sounded like fun."

While the filmmakers scrambled for a new Clarice (Angelina Jolie? Too young. Hilary Swank? Ditto), Hopkins stayed out of the fray. Since giving up alcohol 25 years ago ("I sobered up, cleaned up my act; fortunately I survived"), he keeps to himself, avoiding unnecessary drama. "I'm much better off on my own," he says. He lives alone in the Palisades house while his wife of three decades, Jenni, resides in Britain. The commitment to solitude extends to his work life as well. Hopkins steered clear of Hannibal's Byzantine studio politics. Before Universal, De Laurentiis' professional home, and MGM, which owns Silence, joined forces, a nasty lawsuit had been simmering over the rights to the Clarice character.

"It's not worth getting involved with all that stuff," says Hopkins. Still, he "thought it was excellent" when his colleague from Surviving Picasso, Julianne Moore, 40, signed on. Despite the shadow of Foster, Moore (Oscar nominated for her work in Boogie Nights and The End of the Affair) took the part because "I was impressed with Ridley's take on the character." Indeed, Clarice has been rethought in the adaptation. "We had to make her more of an active detective," says De Laurentiis' wife and producing partner, Martha. As for Hannibal, Hopkins decided that the years of freedom had loosened the old boy up a bit. He now punctuates Hannibal's low-slung, threatening sentences with "okeydokey" and "goody goody."

"Did you like those?" asks Hopkins. "I added those." The star is pleased with himself. When he first visited Hollywood in 1973, he stood in Humphrey Bogart's footprints in the concrete on Hollywood Boulevard and dreamed. Not long ago, he added his own footprints among those of the legends. Last year he finally consummated his relationship with America by becoming a U.S. citizen. "I have to smile, because I'm so fortunate," he says. "I don't know how I got here. I haven't a clue." Here's a clue to where he is going: De Laurentiis now plans to make an all-new movie version of Harris' Red Dragon. Hopkins is waiting to see the script, but he is willing.

Goody goody.