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Remembering Omar Sharif

Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali-680I met him only once, but it would be impossible to forget an
encounter with Omar Sharif, who died today at the age of 83; the circumstances
made it all the more memorable. To promote the reissue of Lawrence of Arabia in 1989, I had the opportunity to jointly interview
four of its creators: director David Lean, cinematographer F.A. (Freddie)
Young, composer Maurice Jarre (all of whom won Academy Awards for their work)
and Sharif (who earned an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor). What a
day that was.

"Lawrence of Arabia" reunion in 1989-2a

They were justly proud of their achievement and happy to
talk about it. Sharif had no illusions about what the role of Sherif Ali meant
to his career. “That was my introduction to audiences,” he remarked. “No one
has ever gotten such an introduction.” Emerging from the mirage-like heat waves
of the desert, he slowly came into focus. It was no accident: Lean arranged a
subtle path of black coal on the desert floor so that our eyes were inexorably
drawn to him. “It’s a question of composition, you see,” he said with British
understatement.

Omar Sharif and Peter O'Toole-680

“For my career, it was do or die,” said Sharif. “Peter
(O’Toole) would have become a big star anyway—and looked exceptional as well.” But
so did his Egyptian-born costar, who skyrocketed to unprecedented fame in the
Western world and became a major movie heartthrob, teaming again with Lean in
the title role of Dr. Zhivago and
romancing Barbra Streisand in another smash hit, Funny Girl.

He went on to play everyone from Che Guevara to Genghis Khan, but as he grew older it was difficult to find parts that challenged or pleased him. 

Omar Sharif, Viggo Morteneon, Hidalgo

He was even willing to try comedy in the exceptionally silly Top Secret!, from the guys who brought us Airplane!; Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker. My pal Jon Davison, who produced that picture, told me this morning, “Omar Sharif was one of the friendliest, nicest, easiest-to-work-with actors I ever encountered. He was game for any indignity that ZAZ heaped upon him. He was contorted into a crushed car for hours and was still smiling and joking by the end of the ordeal.  He was charming to every visitor to the set. He spent time with them, let them take pictures, chatted and was a real prince.  He was indeed Prince Ali.”

He pursued his love of contract bridge and became a widely-published
expert and authority. When a good role did come along, he seized it, winning
acclaim and awards for Monsieur Ibrahim
in 2003.

HIDALGO director Joe Johnston on set with Omar Sharif

But my favorite latter-day appearance came in the
wonderfully entertaining—and underrated—adventure epic Hidalgo (2004) with Viggo Mortensen, in which he plays a sheik.
Asked how he got the job, he said with a laugh, “Well, really, if I don’t get
the part of an old Arab, what am I going to get? I might as well throw myself
out the window.”

When we spoke about the restoration of Lawrence in 1989 he mused, “If they could restore people the way
they can film…”  But it seemed to me that
he aged gracefully, and there is no question that he retained his effortless
ability to command the screen.

What do I remember most about my one, brief meeting with
Omar Sharif? Just what you’d expect: his charisma and charm.

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