Few of those who witnessed the daily performances will ever forget them.

Every morning the young British actor cast as the cerebral palsy sufferer Christy Brown would be lifted into his car to be taken to the film studio outside Dublin, lifted out again when he arrived and put into a wheelchair.

He then had to be carried, wheelchair and all, over the cables and other clutter on set, according to Daily Mail.

When filming was over, he would be transported again in his wheelchair to eat in the Irish capital's smartest restaurants, where he would insist on being spoon-fed. Taking his order must have been a trial as he insisted on using the same unintelligible, side-of-the-mouth drawl as Brown, whose facial muscles didn't work properly.

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So it was that Sir Daniel Day-Lewis got in character for his acclaimed portrayal of the disabled Irish writer and artist in My Left Foot, a role that would win him the first of three Best Actor Oscars - more than anyone except Katharine Hepburn.

Now, some 28 years later, the 60-year-old actor has pulled the curtain down on his career, shocking the film world.

"Daniel Day-Lewis will no longer be working as an actor," his New York spokesman announced.

"He is immensely grateful to all of his collaborators and audiences over the many years. This is a private decision, and neither he nor his representatives will make any further comment on this subject."

His next film, Phantom Thread, set in the London fashion world of the Fifties, to be released later this year, will be his last. And that should be that - although the man widely regarded as the greatest male screen actor of his generation wouldn't be the first to announce his retirement, only to change his mind.

Famously picky about the roles he takes, he has taken "breaks" between films longer than some actors' entire careers.

And he has always been emotionally torn about acting, almost becoming a cabinet-maker after developing a passion for woodworking at Bedales, the progressive public school he attended.

In the Nineties he did a stint as an apprentice cobbler in Italy, and in 2013 he reportedly told friends he was taking a five-year sabbatical to develop his "rural" skills, such as stonemasonry, and spend time with his family on their 50-acre farm in the mountains of Wicklow in Ireland.

But Tuesday's announcement had an air of finality.

When Day-Lewis collapsed on stage while playing Hamlet in a 1989 National Theatre production, claiming he had seen his own father's ghost and vowing never to appear on stage again, he was as good as his word.

As Day-Lewis heads off to the hills, the film world is left perplexed at the loss of an actor who brought huge conviction and attention to detail to roles as varied as Hawkeye in The Last Of The Mohicans, an ageing Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln and an Edwardian snob in A Room With A View.

The rest of us, however, will be mourning the departure of one of the most unfailingly eccentric thespians in Hollywood history.

In person, he is said to be understated and charming, with a distracting high-pitched giggle. Not that many people can tell us much about the real Day-Lewis.

He shuns red-carpet events and parties, and co-stars say they don't know him, just his characters.

"I never met Daniel in person," said Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who played President Lincoln's son, Robert, in the 2012 film. "I only ever met the president. I called him 'Sir', he called me 'Robert'."

Day-Lewis and wife Rebecca Miller arrive at the Oscars in 2013. Photo/Getty Images
Day-Lewis and wife Rebecca Miller arrive at the Oscars in 2013. Photo/Getty Images

Sally Field, who played Mrs Lincoln, recalled how her co-star got into character seven months before they started filming, sending her archaically phrased text messages signed "Yours, A". He expected her to reply to them as if she were a Victorian First Lady.

Off camera, he kept talking in Lincoln's reedy voice and, anxious not to dilute his American accent, asked British members of the film crew not to chat with him.

On location, he rented an old house without central heating through the winter.

For The Last Of The Mohicans (1992), he lived in the wild for six months, learning to track and skin animals, throw tomahawks and use a flintlock rifle. He even sat down to Christmas dinner with his rifle handy.

He insisted on making In The Name Of The Father (1993) a study in masochism.

Playing the wrongly convicted alleged he spent two nights locked in a cell without sleep before being interrogated by real policemen. Anyone who passed his cell was encouraged to hurl abuse at him.

He reportedly spent months walking the streets of New York in 1870s dress, doused in cologne, before playing Newland Archer in the period drama The Age of Innocence.

For The Crucible in 1996, he insisted on building the wooden house that his heroic character, John Proctor, would have inhabited. He did the same when he played a reclusive hippy in The Ballad of Jack And Rose (2005).

When filming was over each night, his family would stay in a hotel while Day-Lewis slept in the shack he had built on a Canadian beach (he loves carpentry, once revealing that one of his sons, Ronan, only realised when he was nine years old that Dad was an actor, not a labourer).

To play Victorian gangster Billy the Butcher alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in the bloody 2002 film Gangs Of New York, Day-Lewis learnt how to become a real butcher, sharpening knives between takes and keeping up his "aggression levels" by listening to the music of angry rapper Eminem. He eventually caught pneumonia on set after refusing to wear thermal clothing.

Co-star Liam Neeson reportedly became furious when Day-Lewis insisted on calling him by his character's name, even in their hotel gym.

Day-Lewis similarly gave full vent to the ugly character he played in 2007 drama There Will Be Blood, for which he won his second Oscar, as a demented oil prospector.

He reportedly refused to speak to other cast members off set and insisted on living in a tent on a deserted Texas oilfield.

It is not clear which of his characters he has sought to emulate in his love life, but it probably isn't honourable Abraham Lincoln. He has had romances with Julia Roberts, Winona Ryder, Greta Scacchi and Juliette Binoche, and was linked to the singer Sinead O'Connor.

He had a six-year on-off relationship with sultry French actress Isabelle Adjani, who later said he had dumped her by fax in 1995 when he found she was pregnant with his son. He initially refused to pay for little Gabriel's upkeep, though friends say father and son are now close.

Day-Lewis was also accused of rather ungentlemanly behaviour when he met his wife, Rebecca Miller, daughter of the playwright Arthur Miller.

The pair married secretly in Vermont in 1996 after a romance so whirlwind it caught even his girlfriend by surprise.

Fitness instructor Deya Pichardo was still living in his New York flat when a friend told her he had married someone else.

Day-Lewis's uncle, Jonathan Balcon, called his nephew a "bounder" whose morals were "up the spout". However, there has been no hint of scandal since he married Miller, with whom he has two boys, Ronan and Cashel.

The Irish brogue that Day-Lewis has nowadays is a long way from his upper-class London upbringing. His father was Cecil Day-Lewis, celebrated writer, Oxford professor and Poet Laureate, while his mother was the actress Jill Balcon.

A rebellious child, he credits his ability to master other people's accents and mannerisms with being sent to a tough state school where, bullied for being "posh" and Jewish, he rapidly learned to fit in by becoming indistinguishable from his tormentors.

He had a difficult childhood - his father was distant, his mother domineering - and he turned to shoplifting and getting into fights, so his parents sent him to board at Sevenoaks School in Kent, which he hated, before he eventually transferred to Bedales in Hampshire.

His father died of pancreatic cancer when Day-Lewis was 15, and he was deeply affected.

A year later he took an overdose of migraine tablets and received psychiatric treatment.

Whatever he does now, one thing is sure. Whether he is dry stone-walling or hammering out a pair of shoes, Britain's most reluctant star will be preparing for his new role with meticulous dedication.