I 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.
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.
“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.
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.
But my favorite latter-day appearance came in the wonderfully entertaining—and underrated—adventure epicHidalgo (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.