When Anthony Hopkins decided to move back here from Beverly Hills, where he had lived for 10 years, he was decidedly apprehensive.

At the time he quit the National Theatre to move to America he was a rising star of the British theater. But, unhappy with his life and suffering what he calls "personality problems" he walked out. "I left under a bit of a cloud," he later admitted. "I was vociferous and angry. So I decided to go."

He starred in "Equus" on Broadway and then moved to Los Angeles where he busied himself with films and television. But last year, the pangs of homesickness became too strong to ignore and he realized he was spending more and more time working in Europe (most recently in television's "Arch of Triumph" with Lesley-Anne Down).

Going back to the London stage gave him pause. How would he be received? He had no idea. "I was biting my nails, wondering."

His first play here was "The Lonely Road," by Christopher Fettes, staged at the Old Vic. It was not a resounding success. But while he was doing it another play was sent to him by director (and co-author with Howard Brenton) David Hare.

Called "Pravda," it is the story of a power-mad South African tycoon who buys up newspapers and tramples ruthlessly on all who stand in his way.

It is, as Hopkins says, "a gem of a part" and he jumped at it.

And his performance in it at London's National Theatre is being called one of the most mesmerizing seen on the stage in years. Charlton Heston and Lauren Bacall, here in plays themselves, have both called his work brilliant. The critics, and the public, agree. It is now the hottest ticket in London town.

Buoyed up all this acclaim, Hopkins sat over breakfast in Park-Lane last week talking about his role--and his return to London.

"After living in Beverly Hills for all those years I seriously wondered if I would ever do anything good on stage again. And 'The Lonely Road,' which was the first play I did here, was not a great success. But then along came this play--the best thing I've ever been offered--and I knew at once what I could make of it. He's such a monster, this man, that the audience is mesmerized. Everyone seems to be fascinated by power and my character (publisher Lambert le Roux) reeks of it."

Most people have assumed that the character of Le Roux is based very loosely on Rupert Murdoch, the Australian press baron who owns newspapers in Britain and the United States. Hopkins does not think that Murdoch has yet seen the play--"but I do expect him."

What he will think when he sees Hopkins' sinister and reptilian portrayal is anybody's guess. For, having stolen the stoop from Hitler, and the attitude from David Susskind, Hopkins plays him like a shark, never still, constantly moving, ready to devour. "Those dead, glazed eyes of killer sharks, that was what I was after."

"What's fascinating," said Hopkins, "is that towards the end of the play you sense the audience siding with Le Roux. At one point he says,"--here Hopkins, an expert mimic, lapsed into the strong South African accent he uses in the play--"I come to this country to organize your lives." And the audience just loves that. Because of course that's what many people do want--someone to organize their lives. And, if we're to be honest, people with power, no matter how dreadful they are, fascinate us. Even the authors were shaken to find how fond they'd become of the monster they'd created."

Understandably, Hopkins hopes to take the play to New York eventually. "But only if the National Theatre goes with it. I won't go on my own. After all the years of hating being part of a company, now I find I like it. Probably because now that I'm older and wiser I'm more at home with people."

Although he and his wife Jenny are pleased to be home, and delighted with the success of "Pravda," Hopkins believes his years in California were well spent.

"American movies and television shows do get you known," he said. "And I was lucky. I did a lot of work. And I miss a lot of things about California which I love. But I do think there's a danger of atrophying if you stay there too long. (To a friend he recently confided: "I felt I might end up sitting on the beach with new teeth and a face lift but I'd be dying inside.")

"I had to rediscover what kind of actor I was and that meant making the move. Deep down, you see, I'm bone idle and in California it's easy to become indolent.

"At one point all I seemed to be doing was having meetings, or 'taking' meetings as they say there. I went to so many at the Beverly Hills Hotel that at one point I told my agent I wanted my ashes scattered in the Polo Lounge when I died. Since coming back here I haven't been to one meeting. They don't seem to have them here."

One of Hopkins' major disappointments was the new version of the Captain Bligh story--"The Bounty." He had been first choice for the role right from the days when David Lean planned to do the story in two parts. But when he saw the final version (directed by Roger Donaldson) he was depressed.

"It was such a sad mess of a film, such a botched job. Yet I'd put so much time and effort into the role. So right then and there I decided: Never again. I will no longer invest so much effort in something over which I have no control. It's too frustrating. That film was a sort of turning point for me. For years I'd been trying to cultivate a don't-give-a-damn attitude. After watching 'The Bounty' I knew I had it."

The actor who grew up in the shadow of Burton and O'Toole, and at one time did his best to emulate their colorful life styles, is now himself being looked up to by the young actors of London. At age 47 he finds that deeply rewarding.

"Moving back here," he said, finishing his coffee, "is the best thing I ever did. . . ."

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