In honor of his idol William Shakespeare, actor Sir has sacrificed it all — a wife, friends, stability and, it would seem, his sanity. But as he prepares for the second half of “King Lear,” unperturbed by planes bombing the ragtag London theater during the Blitz, he has few regrets, especially when it comes to passing on Hollywood.

“I hate the cinema,” he says, snapping at his leading lady when she wistfully recalls their shot at the big time. “I believe in living things.”

Anthony Hopkins, who plays Sir in Monday’s U.S. premiere of “The Dresser,” took an entirely different path.

Recruited for the Royal Shakespeare Company in his youth by acting legend Sir Laurence Olivier, Hopkins was being groomed to follow in the footsteps of fellow Welshmen Richard Burton, dazzling West End audiences in everything from “Julius Caesar” to “M. Butterfly.”

And then he bolted.

“I left the National Theatre under a dark cloud,” said Hopkins, who came to resent the tedious nature and repetition of stage work. “I said, ‘To hell with you all.’ That was my nature then. It’s not like today. I’ve mellowed a lot.”

At 78, the Oscar-winning actor isn’t ready for eight shows a week and late night dinners at Sardi’s, but “The Dresser” may be the next best thing.

The drama, written for the theater in 1980 by Ronald Harwood, focuses on the relationship between Sir, the actor/manager of a Shakespearean repertory company during the height of World War II, and Norman, his chatterbox assistant, whose job has evolved from laying out costumes to making sure the boss hits his cues, despite his rapid descent into dementia. Does “the dresser” really care about his longtime employer, or are his attempts to prop up the fading Sir acts of self-preservation? The ugly truth is revealed by the heartbreaking final act.

The play inspired a 1983 movie, for which stars Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay received Oscar nominations, but one of the biggest names in film and theater was game for a remake.

“There have been many films, television shows and plays about what it’s like to be an actor, the backstage, and frankly none of them are as good as this one,” said Ian McKellen, whose sniveling, insecure Norman is a radical departure from “Lord of the Rings” hero Gandalf and conflicted X-Man Magneto.

The movie, originally aired in England, marks the first time McKellen and Hopkins have acted together on screen, and the dialogue between the two great performers crackles with nervous energy and suggests an unhealthy bromance reminiscent of that between Smithers and Mr. Burns on “The Simpsons.”

The chance to act with McKellen helped secure the participation of Hopkins, who hasn’t starred in a TV production since 1993. So did the reputation of director Richard Eyre, a three-time winner as best director at the Laurence Olivier Theatre Awards. But another name loomed large. In one of the film’s few moments of triumph, Sir manages to get through a particularly tricky bit of Lear and pumps his fist in the air in honor of the Bard.

“My doing ‘The Dresser’ was a painless revisit to a world that I had known 50 years ago and wasn’t comfortable with,” he said. “And now I can understand why Sir and so many great actors love Shakespeare. I wish I had that.”

Perhaps it’s not too late. The BBC has announced plans to film a new TV production of “King Lear.” It will star Hopkins. 

njustin@startribune.com Twitter: @nealjustin