The City and the Soldiers That Lured Hopkins Stateside

We were in New York City. Outside, raindrops still clung to the windows, even though the storm had ceased. Anthony Hopkins pulled back the curtains to get a better view of the twinkling Manhattan skyline from the 35th floor of his hotel. All we could see was a glistening panorama of shimmering streets and silvery buildings washed by the rain.

Turning to me, he said, ''There's a certain magic to this city. It's like a magnet drawing you through the lights and the concrete, making you wonder about the people who live and work in these towers of steel.''

Putting on his raincoat, he continued, ''Someday I'll tell you what first inspired me to come to America.''

His manager intervened with, ''If you leave now, you may have a brief rest before boarding the plane again for Paris.'' The actor was starring as Picasso in a movie being filmed in the South of France. He'd flown to New York to talk about his current film, Oliver Stone's ''Nixon.''

As I packed up my tape recorder, I silently wondered about the memory that seemed so precious to Sir Anthony, who was knighted last year by Queen Elizabeth II.

Suddenly, Hopkins turned around. He was taking his arm out of the coat sleeve instead of putting it in. ''There's time enough,'' he assured the others, ''I want her to hear this story.''

And, with that, he sat down, leaned against the leather chair, and began to remember a day long ago....

''It was the oddest thing. Years and years ago, in 1944, my parents invited two lonely American soldiers to our house for tea. The Yanks were stationed near our village, and my parents knew they'd soon be shipping out.

''I was riding my tricycle in the yard when this strange car with two soldiers stopped at our house. It was World War II, and in Britain, with food rationing and shortages, we seldom had strangers visit.

''My mother and father were at the front door waving to them as they got out of the staff car. The GIs immediately won me over: One gave me three brightly colored marbles, while the other handed me chewing gum.

''I was impressed. It was like Christmas!''

''How old were you?'' I asked.

''Humm, around 7,'' he answered. Then he continued: ''My dad explained, 'Tony, these two soldiers came all the way from America.' They had no sooner sat on the sofa than I brought a little footstool and sat down in front of them.

'' 'America,' I repeated all wide-eyed with excitement. 'What's it like?' They seemed so happy to be talking about their country.

''My father was a baker, so even with rationing, we had bread and often a little cake or cookies. That day my mother served everything. I ate up their conversation, while they enjoyed the cookies.

''I can still see my father looking so proper with his tea cup. He was a barrel-chested man with large hands. It was always cold and usually damp when he went to work to heat the ovens and begin the early-morning baking. Even when we went walking and he'd take my hand, his were always rough and cracked.

''It was the first time I heard about America, and I excitedly asked, 'Father, can we go there?'

'' 'Maybe,' he smiled.

''The two soldiers laughed, 'Sure you will, and you'll like it.'

''When they left, we stood at the garden gate and watched the car disappear. I felt kind of empty. It was the last time we saw them.

''My mum turned her head, but I saw her wipe a tear from her eye. Going into the house, she asked Dad, 'Do you think they'll be in the invasion?'

'' 'Most certainly,' he answered. But trying to cheer us up, he added, 'It was nice of Sergeant Cluney to take our address and say his wife would write.'

''Months later, Mrs. Cluney did write, thanking my folks for being kind to two lonely GIs. It was through her we learned they were both killed in the Battle of the Bulge.''

Hopkins was settling in, so I knew there was more to his story. He seemed as interested to tell it as I was to hear it. ''Two years later, my mum and I were taking the bus home from town. There was this American Army sergeant having a hard time figuring out British currency.

''My mother asked, 'Can I help?' She showed him which coins to use for bus fare. He gave her a big smile and sat down next to us. His name was Sgt. Sam Harris, and he was stationed at the nearby base and thought he'd soon be going home.

'' 'To America?' I asked. My mother immediately suggested, 'Why don't you come home with us, have tea, and my husband will take you to the address you're looking for?'

''He seemed happy to have the invitation, for it was raining and he'd never been to our village. When we got home, Dad wasn't back from the bakery, so I had time to ask the sergeant questions.

''Sergeant Harris was from New York, and he was wonderfully proud of it. He painted such a glorious picture of huge skyscrapers, the Statue of Liberty, and the lights of Broadway that I blurted out, 'I want to go to America!'

''When my dad came home, he was surprised to see an American soldier sitting in the living room. And even more amazed at how excited I was about New York.

'' 'Sergeant Harris says there is this huge statue in the harbor, and you can walk inside it and even climb up to the torch, which is 50 miles high - and....

'' 'Hey,' laughed Harris, 'that would be really tall.'

''Sergeant Harris became a good friend. Even when he returned to America, he continued to write, sending us food and clothing.

''Now, that was 50 years ago,'' Hopkins reminded, moving to the edge of his chair. ''Last year I was in my native South Wales. My mother was visiting me when the CBS-TV program '60 Minutes' came to tape an interview.''

By now, I was on the edge of my seat, adding, ''I remember that program, and how you had to coax your mother to come on camera. She was wonderful, and I do recall her sharing some of her wartime memories.''

Hopkins's shoulders were shaking with laughter, as he recalled, ''My mother might have been shy at first, but once she was on TV you couldn't shut her up!''

There was more. Hopkins's voice had an excited edge. ''When '60 Minutes' aired in America, Sam Harris was at home in Florida watching it. It wasn't until he saw my mother that he shouted to his wife, 'That's Muriel Hopkins, the lady who looked after me during the war.' He didn't know until that moment that her inquisitive little boy had grown up to be the actor Anthony Hopkins.

''Harris phoned CBS in New York, explained his story, and soon got in touch with my mother. It was arranged, and they met again. After 50 years, it was quite a reunion!

''Seeing them together, I thought what a peculiar destiny I've had. If my parents hadn't asked the soldiers to tea, if the GIs hadn't painted such a rosy picture of America, would I have wanted to come here so much?

''In my early teens, I heard the life of an actor described as part gypsy: They travel everywhere. Maybe that's what drew me to acting; it was my passport to America. These GIs made an imprint on my life. I still feel an emotional tug, remembering the spark they ignited in my heart.''

With that, Sir Anthony got up. I thanked him for sharing his memories, and he left for his flight to France. As I started to leave, my eye was drawn to a pad of paper on the table near Hopkins's chair. He had been doodling as he talked. I turned the paper around - it was a sketch of three marbles and a package of gum.

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