The Arab warlord in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ – who also immortalised the romantic Russian doctor-come-poet in ‘Doctor Zhivago’ – was back in town last week for the first time since Lean’s majestic, big-screen epic was shot in the province 50 years ago. Richard Torné spoke to Omar Sharif in between award ceremonies and wading through crowds of adoring fans
“First Lean chose me to play an Arab, which was normal, but then he went on to cast me as a Russian in ‘Doctor Zhivago’!” remarks Sharif, incredulous at the boldness of director David Lean’s decision.
It had been a long day, and my interview with him at a hotel in central Almería came at the end of a hectic, and at times manic, schedule. The 81-year-old star was due to receive an award in the next few hours for his role in one of the most important and best remembered films in cinema history – ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.
Women still swoon at the mention of Omar Sharif, who at the height of his fame came to represent the archetypal leading man. But despite a career spanning almost 60 years, he is still best remembered for the two David Lean films he shot in the 1960s, barely three years apart – ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and ‘Doctor Zhivago’. If it hadn’t been for these two movies it’s highly doubtful anyone would be talking about him now. A string of highly forgettable films followed in their wake in the 1970s and 1980s; poor career choices forced upon him by his penchant for gambling – mostly playing bridge, at which he excelled – which ruined him on more than one occasion.
Now in the twilight of his career, it was only fitting that one of only two surviving leading cast members (Peter O’Toole being the other one) should return to the spot where his international career took off.
His white hair may be thinning and his face wizened, but the seductive charm remains, which is just as well. Earlier in the day, he was taken to Carboneras, where one of the most important scenes in the film was filmed, namely the charge in Aqaba, which required the building of a mock town in a rambla just outside the village.
The local council went out of its way to welcome the veteran actor, throwing everything but the kitchen sink. An expectant crowd stood in the main square as Sharif’s retinue pulled up in a black limousine outside the town hall building, the entrance flanked by two real camels – presumably to make Sharif feel at home.
It was the sort of welcome a head of state could expect – perhaps Prince Feisal himself, rather than the tigerish ‘Sherif Ali’ Omar depicted in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.
At the council reception he was provided with an escort of three dubious-looking men, donning Arab regalia. Slightly over the top, perhaps, but in keeping with the wave of euphoria that engulfed the star’s arrival. He was almost mobbed as he left the town hall by over-enthusiastic women who, it would be safe to say, had enjoyed the flower of their youth some decades earlier. It was a tense moment for some, not least the organisers, aware that Sharif has been known for throwing the odd temper tantrum (he head- butted a French cop in 2003 and there’s footage of him on You Tube appearing to slap an overzealous female fan at a film festival.)
They needn’t have worried, though. Sharif was on his best behaviour and unfailingly professional throughout – and generous in his remarks about the area. “Without Almería there would not have been Omar Sharif”. He even insisted on speaking mostly in Spanish, although it required more effort on his part.
It inevitably proved too much for the elderly star who, worn out by the demands made on him, became so flustered at one point that he refused to grant any more interviews, leaving this reporter (whose turn it was to interview him next) up Wadi Rumm without a paddle.
An unashamedly desperate plea for ‘quality time’ with him by yours truly – done mostly via hand gestures through the hotel window – disarmed Sharif, who smiled at my cheeky efforts and ushered me in, much to his agent’s bemusement.
“It’s 50 years since I made it…” Sharif tails off wearily, looking visibly tired and perhaps unsure if his mind is failing him. “It was very brave of Lean to take two unknown actors like O’Toole and myself to star in this film.”
Sharif still admits to being baffled at Lean’s gamble with the actors – one of many. “The film was three hours and 40 minutes long; there were no women and there was nothing exciting happening. It was extraordinary.”
So why was it so successful, I ask. “I’m not sure, but I saw it again recently in London and I loved it! I knew it was a great film when we were making it.”
His thoughts turn to Lean, the director, who together with O’Toole and property master Eddie Fowlie, evoke his fondest memories. “David Lean was brilliant. I now know he never did anything wrong, really. He had an extraordinary imagination.”
Lean could be notoriously hostile and dismissive about actors, but he had a soft spot for Sharif, something Fowlie confirms in his autobiography, ‘David Lean’s Dedicated Maniac’.
“In my first scene in Lawrence I had to take water from a well and realised my rifle, which was slung over my shoulder, would slip off, so I sewed the strap onto my clothes during the night.” Sharif’s move, done mostly to avoid any possible embarrassment in his first scene in front of Lean, didn’t go unnoticed. “Eddie (Fowlie) later went to David and he said ‘Do you realise this boy spent the whole night sewing the rifle onto his clothes?’ From that point on David loved me.”
Beyond the standard answers, he teasingly reveals a few more insights about the other actors he worked with. He groans at the sight of a photo of Anthony Quinn, “he was bad”, he snaps, with a dismissive wave of the hand, and his co-star in Doctor Zhivago, the stunning Julie Christie, also comes in for a bit of stick. “I didn’t like her very much, she spent all her time eating during filming – very strange.”
He visibly saddens at the thought that the film’s main protagonist and long-time friend, Peter O’Toole, is unable to bask in the glow of the Lawrence celebrations. His health, always a target for jokes due to his affinity for the odd alcoholic beverage, recently took a turn for the worst. “Lawrence of Arabia is a huge film and they made a big thing about it in London recently, but Peter couldn’t come. I’m sad because he is not at all well and I fear he may die soon.”
He is coy at the mention of his past romantic exploits, and it doesn’t seem appropriate to bring them up now. Poignantly, one of Sharif’s more recent films, ‘Monsieur Ibrahim’, for which he won a Cesar, may prove to be a more fitting swansong to his career. In it, he plays a Muslim at the end of his life who develops a close friendship with a Jewish boy; an apt role for a man who though Egyptian by birth, is of Lebanese, Syrian and French extraction. It’s the sort of cultural potpourri that adds gravitas to his words at a time when common sense and understanding seem to be in short supply in the Middle East. Years ago, he reportedly warned George W. Bush against invading Iraq. “You’ll drown there” was his chilling remark. It was the sort of warning the real T.E. Lawrence himself would have sounded off and a sentiment the charismatic soldier and writer would have fully understood.
(Thanks to Adolfo Iglesias for additional quotes)