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Remembering Omar Sharif

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.

"Lawrence of Arabia" reunion in 1989-2a

A “Lawrence of Arabia” reunion in 1989: cinematographer F.A. (Freddie) Young, Omar Sharif, director David Lean, and composer Maurice Jarre

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
(Image Courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures Distribution)Sharif with Viggo Mortensen in a scene from “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
Photo by Richard Cartwright – Courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures DistributionDirector Joe Johnston and Sharif on the set of “Hidalgo”

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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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