Who was the real Hannibal Lecter?

Silence of the Lambs author Thomas Harris reveals the true-life inspiration for his unforgettable villain.

For the first time, the reclusive author of 'Silence of the Lambs' has revealed that he based the character of his cannibal protagonist, Hannibal Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins in the 1991 film, on a sinister surgeon he met in a Mexican prison in the 1960s.



Lecter, one of cinema's most notorious villains, was first introduced to the world in Harris's novel, 'Red Dragon' in 1981.

In a foreword to the 25th anniversary edition of 'The Silence of the Lambs', Harris explains that he met the doctor on a vista to Nuevo Leon State Prison in Monterre, Mexico when he was a 23-year-old journalist - probably in 1964.

Actor Mads Mikkelsen - who plays Dr Lecter on TV (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

He had been sent to interview an American prisoner sentenced to death for murdering three people.  While at the prison, Harris was introduced to a peculiar doctor who saved the American's life when he was shot during an escape attempt.

"Dr Salazar was a small, lithe man with dark red hair. He stood very still and there was a certain elegance about him," Harris recalls.


In a scene reminiscent of the scene in the film where Lecter questions the you FBI trainee Clarice Starling about her childhood traumas, Dr Salazar proceeds to interrogate Harris about the American inmate, disfigured in boyhood, and the  traumas that may have led to the murder.

Just as Lecter confuses his victims with his creepy charm, Harris reveals that the so-called Dr Salazar - the man he presumed to be a prison medic - concealed a dark secret. He was told by a warden that the doctor was insane and would never leave the prison, even though they allowed him to treat poor clients.


Later, writing 'Red Dragon', and needing a character for his detective, Clarice, to talk to who had a peculiar understanding of the criminal mind, his memory of the doctor gradually came into view.

 "Because of Dr Salazar, I could recognise his colleague and fellow practitioner, Hannibal Lecter," Harris recalls.