A look back at the life of the actor Omar Sharif, who died in July 2015 at the age of 83. Featuring archive interviews with the BBC and contributions from director David Lean.
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He was born Michel Chalhoub.
To his friends, he was always Cairo Fred.
But to the world, he was Omar Sharif,
the exotic heart-throb who, in the 1960s,
became the Rudolph Valentino of his day.
The surname Sharif means "noble" in Arabic
and Omar always had about him an air of high-class sophistication.
On-screen, Hollywood producers tended to cast him
in any role demanding an attractive foreigner.
Off-screen, the media portrayed him as an international playboy
who gambled in the world's top casinos
and swept woman off their feet in glamorous hotels.
And as we shall see, at times, he didn't do much to fight that image.
His film career started in Egypt in the 1950s.
He may have stayed there had it not been for David Lean.
The great British director cast Omar as Sherif Ali in the 1962
classic Lawrence of Arabia.
Here, we join him looking back on that pivotal experience with
For Lawrence, we were out, the film, the shooting took a year
and a half and for about nine months, we were in the desert.
The nearest road was 150 miles away.
We were in tents, living in tents,
and there were convoys of cistern trucks every day bringing water,
you know, to give to the camels and the horses and the people.
And they put showers on top of trucks, you know,
they put things where you pulled on a string
and lots of water fell on to you at the end of the day.
And it was marvellous for me because it was my first film.
I had not a lot of experience and the fact that
when the day's shooting was over, not all the actors went back to their
homes but all we could do was sit together and have a drink
and chat out in the desert.
It meant that I could listen to all these marvellous actors,
Peter O'Toole and Alec Guinness and Claude Rains and Jack Hawkins,
and they were talking about their work and about the theatre
and about their experiences and I was like a sponge soaking it all up.
Sherif, I caught them. They had tracked us, they were here.
-I caught them.
-Why are you here?
-To serve Lord Aurens, Sherif.
This is true, Aurens, they do wish it.
You have been tracking us?
-You were told to stay.
-No, Sherif. Our camel strayed, we followed her.
She led us here to be Lord Aurens' servants.
It is the will of Allah.
-Don't do that!
No, no, Aurens, these are not servants, these are outcasts.
-Be warned, they are not suitable.
-They sound very suitable.
You can ride with the baggage.
These are not servants, these are worshippers.
-I imagine one of the problems out there must have been,
because it was all about sweeping desert landscapes
and all that, was in fact keeping it pristine, that desert landscape,
while there was 1,000 people milling around on it.
Well, yes, it was terrible
because we had a team actually of 300 men whose job was to hold
a broom which after every time we did a take on a shot,
they had to go out and sweep all the tracks on the desert
from the camera to the horizon, you know.
I mean you were there for all that time, did you ever feel that
you were really sort of losing touch with the rest of the world?
Yes, we did.
As a matter of fact, while we were out there,
this was in 1961 and '62, we got the newspapers from England
and we were reading that there was a new thing that was very
fashionable in all the nightclubs and discotheques and that was the twist.
And we said, "What's that?"
And we read that everybody was doing the twist.
And Peter O'Toole and I said,
"God, we're going to go back to London and it'd be ridiculous.
"We'd go to these discotheques and we won't know how to dance."
So he said, "I know what we'll do, we'll import a teacher."
So, he arranged it with production
and out came a gorgeous blonde French girl.
It would be Peter O'Toole that booked it, yeah.
And she stayed out.
She brought this one record, which was a Peppermint something.
She brought this one LP
and we had this every evening after shooting, we'd get the bottle of
whisky out, have a couple of drinks, put the record on and start going...
..with this girl.
And then after about two or three weeks,
this record started going like that cos we'd used so much of it.
But when we got back to London, we were good.
Lawrence of Arabia didn't just introduce Omar to international
audiences, it introduced him in the most spectacular way imaginable.
The scene where Sherif Ali
and Lawrence first meet is one of cinema's greatest,
although David Lean himself thought it might have been even better.
-Lawrence of Arabia, I don't know if you'll remember,
I had a scene with Omar, it turns out to be Omar Sharif coming out of
the desert and he's a mirage and it starts as a sort of wavering shape.
And it ends up as this man who gets on his camel.
And I cut that at double the length at one time...
and then I lost my nerve
and I cut it in half and I made it all much quicker.
And when the premiere came, I could've kicked myself
because as it started,
as that figure started wavering in the distance, the audience,
you could hear a pin drop, you know, and they were gripped.
It was better the first time but it did all right as it was
but you do learn things years afterwards.
-Did you not replace it after that and make it long again?
No, it's done, you've done it.
That was Lean's strongest memory of the premiere.
Omar was just relieved to be there at all after getting
into trouble with Peter O'Toole the night before the big opening.
What was it like when you first went to Hollywood
because it must have been very alienating?
Well, my first night, I spent in jail.
No-one ever found out about it, thank God,
-because we would have never worked again.
-Yes. We arrived...
It was a dream, I mean our dream, all the hardships we had in the desert,
it was over 100 degrees, really, our dream was to arrive in Hollywood.
We'd never been, either of us.
And finally we made it there the night before the opening
of Lawrence and the studio gave us a huge limousine in the evening
and said, "You can go out and have some fun."
So, we got into this limousine and we went down Sunset Strip.
And we saw, advertised in a theatre, Lenny Bruce.
He was a terrific comedian.
And we said let's go and see him.
So, we went in there and watched the show and then we went backstage.
"You were marvellous, we loved you" and we introduced ourselves.
"You don't know us but we are two actors.
"Tomorrow, we have the opening of our film. Come and have a drink with us."
He said, "OK", so we went out, had a few
and at about 1:00 in the morning,
he said, "Look, I've got to nip back home for about 15 minutes.
"Would you like to wait for me here or would you like to come?"
We said, "We'll come with you."
So we went back and went to his place and he got this needle
and put it in his...
And it was...
Mainlining, whatever they call it.
And all of a sudden, they broke the door down and in came the police
and they hauled us all to the police station.
Peter O'Toole being Irish hates the cops anyway.
And he was very rude to them. He'd had a few drinks.
-They either hate them or become one.
And he was very rude to them
and they didn't have much of a sense of a humour, those ones.
So, they said, "All right, you, inside" and tried to lock us up.
And I was the most sober of the three and I'd seen a lot of American films,
I said, "I have the right to make a phone call."
So I picked up the phone and called the Beverly Hills Hotel where
Sam Spiegel the producer was staying.
And it was 4:00 in the morning and I said to the operator,
"Get me Mr Spiegel." She said, "I can't disturb him at this hour."
I said, "Please do, it's very urgent."
And finally, I got him on the phone, he was half-asleep.
I mean he was so much half-asleep, he said, "Who is this?"
I said, "It's Omar." He said, "Omar who?"
I said, "How many Omars do you know?"
Oh, that Omar, yes.
I said, "We're in jail." He said, "Who's in jail?!"
I said, "Peter O'Toole and I." He said, "Where?"
I said whatever precinct or whatever.
So half an hour later, he walked in with lots of guys with hats
and briefcases and had a chat with the cops.
And then they opened the thing and said, "You two can come out."
But by this time, Peter was very friendly with Lenny and he said,
"What about him?" They said, "No, he stays cos he had the record."
Peter said, "I'm not going anywhere without my friend."
Sam said, "Don't be a child."
He said, "Don't be a child yourself, you have to get my friend out."
-So they went back to them and had another chat.
That was the first night in Hollywood.
His performance in Lawrence earned Omar
a Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe Award and an Oscar nomination.
He won the Best Actor Golden Globe Award three years later
for his performance in David Lean's next film, Doctor Zhivago,
the epic tale of romance
and revolution in which he played the title role.
Now, the 64,000 question, of course, was who played Zhivago.
Now, Zhivago is a very passive part and I think it needs a poet
and a doctor but the fatal pitfall, I think,
would've been to cast too much to type.
If I'd had a very studious young man, I think he'd tend to be a bore
in the picture and so I thought I will go for immense good looks
and I thought of Omar because he had played the sheikh in Lawrence who
came out of the mirage and he's a very sensitive actor
and we happened to work very well together.
He catches on and I think it works
and I thought I could get this Russian poet out of him.
And I backed that hunch, a lot of people thought I was mad, but
I don't think I was, I think he'd make a great success in this film.
Omar would claim that he was cast in two David Lean films
because he was one of the few actors that the director actually liked.
Was the feeling mutual? This interview would suggest not.
He's a man who is very easy to hate.
In other words, it is very easy to hate David
and very difficult to like him.
He's a very hard man, a very selfish man, who has no pity for anyone
and none for himself either which is a very rare thing.
He has no self-pity and no self-indulgence
and therefore it is very difficult for him to pity anybody else
or to feel sorry for anybody, however tired they may be.
He considers everybody on the set,
everybody who is helping to make the film,
as objects rather than as people.
They are the things that are making his film.
And, well, you can see how easy it is,
if you think that he is considering you as an object,
how easy it is to be terribly unhappy and rather hate him for it.
I know that I have, at the end of many days' shooting,
felt terrible hate for him
and I know, for instance, most of the people who have worked with him
and who work with him rather dislike him
because he drives them too hard and he uses them too much.
Doctor Zhivago was not initially liked by the critics
but it was a huge financial hit and is now considered amongst Lean's
finest work and Omar played a key part in one of the scenes
which Lean took most pride in.
I was very frightened of a scene we had
in which a whole group of dragoons charge a procession.
I was frightened of it because I've seen
so many horsemen charging people and the swords come out,
you have close-ups of the sword being lifted
and a close-up of a man with his head being split open,
falling down in the street, and it's boom, boom, boom, boom.
And it's a kind of bore.
And I got the idea, of not showing any of it at all.
So what I did was this, I had the dragoons charge down the street.
The people start to run...
The little incidental isn't the running.
That is a drum rolling down the street.
SHOUTING AND SCREAMING
And then, at the moment...
that the clash came,
I cut to a big close-up of Omar Sharif
and I stayed on him,
hearing the yells and the cries offstage.
SCREAMING AND STRUGGLING
I held it for quite a long time.
And then cut back to the street and there were the bodies lying there.
Thank goodness it...
I think, worked.
If it hadn't worked, I'd have been cooked,
because I didn't shoot any of that sabre bashing.
With Lawrence and Zhivago under his belt,
Omar should have had the world at his feet.
Instead, he had the Arab world up in arms.
The same time as the Israeli-Egyptian Six-Day War,
publicity photos of him kissing his co-star, Barbra Streisand,
were released ahead of the 1968 film Funny Girl.
Streisand's Jewish background prompted calls in Egypt
for Omar's citizenship to be removed
and, back in Hollywood, many of the film's Jewish backers
wanted him replaced.
In the end, he stayed
and he would have an affair with Streisand
that lasted for the duration of the film's production.
The 1960s also saw another film with Peter O'Toole,
The Night of the Generals.
And then, in 1969, came Che,
in which he played Cuba's revolutionary leader, Che Guevara.
Is it difficult creating the role of a man, who so recently died?
A man who has a fantastic reputation, in a way?
Do you find this hard?
Well, I find it frightening
and I think it's a great responsibility.
I'm fortunate enough, first of all, to look quite a bit like him,
like he did, which makes it a lot easier,
because once you look like someone,
-it's much easier to be him...
..than if you have to work very hard already at looking and...
and never succeeding in looking like the person you're playing.
From some accounts of him, he wasn't a very warm or sympathetic person.
He was so concerned with the revolution and with politics.
Is this an aspect of Che that you're putting across?
Yes, he was...he...
You didn't see very easily who he liked and who he didn't like.
-He didn't let his hair down, in other words, very often.
He was sort of difficult to approach, difficult to get to.
And that's why he had such a fascinating personality,
because people who are like that are...
-..attract people to them.
Did you finally come to admire him yourself?
Yes, but I...
I would admire anyone I've, you know, portrayed.
I find it very difficult to dislike someone that I play.
Do you know what I mean?
I always give him a justification, even if he's doing something wrong.
Despite Omar's good intentions,
Che was a disaster.
One critic at the time called it,
"One of the 50 worst films ever made."
And its reception seemed to coincide
with Omar falling out of love with acting.
I was lucky enough to appear with him
in one of his best received films of the period -
1974's The Tamarind Seed.
Oh, he was so charming.
And so nice.
he was becoming known for his other passions -
gambling and the card game bridge,
at which he was ranked among the best players in the world.
Is playing bridge more important to you than filming?
It's not more important to me,
but it gives me much more pleasure.
I mean, obviously filming
is very important to me,
because it's what enables me to be able to have hobbies,
to play bridge,
to make bridge known,
because I use actually what I gain in my career to do that.
And my career is very important to me.
But as you get older, as it were,
you look after your pleasure much more
than you do when you're younger.
And what I'm doing now, bridge is what gives me real pleasure.
And I'd rather be playing bridge than filming, that's quite true.
But that's obvious. One always prefers to indulge
in one's hobby rather than to indulge in one's work.
Of course, as well as bridge playing,
there was always the Casanova image to play up to,
which Omar did, with varying degrees of enthusiasm,
in television appearances like this one from 1977.
Here in the company of Miss France, Miss Austria, Miss Las Vegas,
Miss Monte Carlo and Miss Nice,
please give a big welcome to Omar Sharif.
It's raining out there, as well - you're all wet.
It's colder than the desert.
Seriously, Omar, I have never met a film star who has managed to
separate himself so completely and so successfully from all
the ballyhoo that surrounds the film industry.
You seem almost to exist on a separate level?
Yes, fortunately I have passions that allow me to do that.
Not those ones!
No, up to about five years ago, I was working all the time
and travelling and living in hotels, out of suitcases and all.
And I felt that I didn't have any private life
and that I've sort of messed up,
or missed up, on my life.
I didn't have a family, neighbours,
a club that you go to,
I made friends with people for about two months during the shooting
of a film, and then I had to go and never saw them again.
So, I woke up one day and I thought,
"Well, what have I done? Nothing."
It's all right to have ambition and to want to make your career
and all, when you're young.
But after you pass the age of 40,
you want to have something to show for all the work you've done
and something to look forward to when you get older.
Well, you certainly make a point of enjoying yourself.
I mean, you've immersed yourself in, well, horse racing is
-one of your big passions, of course.
-I love the horse. I love animals.
And I think that the horse is probably, in my opinion,
the most beautiful animal.
It's a very proud animal and it's gorgeous to look at,
the way it moves, the way it...
I've taken up breeding of horses.
And the breeding is very exciting,
because you, feel in a way, like a creator,
because you choose who's going to be dad and who's going to be mum,
and you marry them, as it were.
And then, if you succeed one day
in having a little foal that's going to be a great horse,
maybe in 300 years from now,
I would look into pedigree books and see that, not I was there...
..the world will see the name of a horse that I bred.
This is the only way I can go to posterity.
The interviews were now all about Omar, the man about town,
not about the films he continued to churn out regularly,
which were, in his own words,
but also done for the pay cheques.
There was a sense of what might have been about him.
But in the 1980s, he tried to rekindle a love for acting,
not on screen, but onstage,
in Terence Rattigan's
The Prince And The Showgirl.
He discusses the play,
and of course his sex symbol status,
in this appearance on the Wogan show.
He said you seduced three girls in three different languages.
-On three separate nights.
Are you denying all knowledge of this?
Yes, well, I'm...
LAUGHTER I'm not denying the fact
that I talked to three different girls.
We were in India, mind you, there was not much to do there!
How does the image, that heart-throb image,
how does it match up with the real person?
everybody knows I've got these extraordinary passions
for racing horses, for bridge, for cards,
and for good food and wine.
And these are passions that don't go too well
with a passion for girls,
because when you play bridge or you go racing,
you don't really want to have a girlfriend with you,
because it sort of...
It doesn't help your concentration on what you're doing.
When you said that you're a passionate man
and you listed your passions...
..I don't remember you mentioning acting?
Well, yes, that is my first and basic passion,
but what has happened was, in the last few years,
perhaps I did too much of films.
And in the last few years,
I find that the parts have not been interesting,
the parts that I have been offered.
And parts I have even worked on,
have not been interesting.
They have not challenged me in any way.
They are all too much on the nose.
I remember my passion for acting with...
..it was very important to me, and I want that to happen again,
I want to have that enthusiasm again,
and I think that the theatre will give me that.
Do you involve yourself in what has been called the method style?
Do you get deeply involved in the motivation?
No, I don't like very much that.
I don't particularly like, and perhaps I'm wrong,
I'm not saying that I'm right in what I like or not,
but I don't like method actors, in general,
because I find them so very boring
and tiresome to work with.
I'm not speaking of the results of what they do.
A lot of them are brilliant.
But I find them very tiresome to work with.
They're always going behind the sets
and working themselves up into some tremendous, frantic state.
LAUGHTER And coming back
when they're all worked up
and you don't know what it's about.
LAUGHTER All they ever say is good morning.
I can't think why.
But it looks terrific on the screen.
I've never seen any English actors do that.
I mean, I've worked with a lot of British actors
and I've never seen any actors go running around behind the set and...
I mean, I knew one actor, one American actor,
he had to run about a mile before saying anything at all.
LAUGHTER Cos he liked to be out of breath.
Are you sure he wasn't doing that to sober up?
He wasn't a particular drunk, that one.
But do you ever see yourself in a part and think,
I wish I'd worked myself up a bit more for that?
Yes, very often. I find I'm half asleep most of the time!
I actually need to run around a bit, but I can't do it,
I can't be bothered.
He may not have been bothered most of the time,
but Omar could still win acclaim when he tried.
In 2003, he won France's Cesar award for Best Actor
for his part in the film Monsieur Ibrahim.
It would be his last performance of note, and he was 71,
an age that at one stage he had looked forward to.
How do you regard, for example, the prospect of growing old?
Well, I love the idea of growing old.
I think old people have an admirable life.
I always envied
the life that old people have.
The only fear I possibly have about getting old
is being ill or not well,
but if I knew that I was not going to be ill and not well,
then I would love to be old,
cos it's got so many advantages.
First of all, all the women problem is gone.
LAUGHTER No, it's very good.
You don't have that problem any more, so that's one thing.
The other thing is that I think they have marvellous lives,
all regulated, with wonderful little habits
and you get up at exactly 7:37am,
and you go in the kitchen and make your cup of tea yourself,
and then you go out and get your newspaper
and sit and walk in the park,
and sit on that bench exactly for 56 minutes.
I think it's a marvellous life that they have,
they don't have any problems, really.
And even in their relationship...
..a couple, say, an old couple,
is the most beautiful and charming thing that you can see,
because it's real love.
It's got none of the tension
and fear that you have in young people's love,
cos you're always afraid to lose the girl you love
and she's afraid to lose you.
When you're old, you're not really afraid to lose each other,
it's relaxed and it's marvellous.
Sadly, Omar's final years were troubled with illness
and Alzheimer's disease,
and he died of a heart attack in July 2015,
Despite those years when film success proved elusive,
the tributes were affectionate and agreed that those early
performances in Lawrence of Arabia and Dr Zhivago
meant he deserved his place in cinema history -
not only as the Arab world's first international movie star,
but also as the actor who was introduced to audiences
with what is arguably
the finest entrance ever seen in film.
A look back at the life of the actor Omar Sharif, who died in July 2015 at the age of 83. Using archive from his interviews with the BBC and featuring contributions from director David Lean, this episode explores Sharif's dramatic entrance into the film world of the 1960s with Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, sees him considering his reputation as a playboy, and examines how his passion for cards and gambling at one point threatened to eclipse his reputation as an actor.