Omar Sharif is on the line from Paris. It’s early evening there, and the 80-year-old screen legend’s French accent is so smoky and suave that he sounds like he just stepped out of a casino wearing an ascot. Sharif has had a singular six-decade career, starring in such classics as Doctor Zhivago and Funny Girl, but there’s one movie that holds a special place in his heart — and the heart of anyone who’s seen it projected on a big screen: 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia. David Lean’s majestic WWI-set epic was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actor for Sharif in his Hollywood debut. And he’s the first to admit that it changed his life forever. Here, the man behind the film’s swashbuckling Sherif Ali reminisces about making the Best Picture winner, drinking with costar Peter O’Toole, and his awkward date with Oscar half a century ago.
You were a movie star in Egypt before you were cast in Lawrence of Arabia. How did director David Lean find you?
The truth is, it was a miracle. I had never gone out of Egypt until the age of 30. He said, ”I want a real Arab to play the part of Sherif Ali. Go find me one who can speak English properly.” And it happened to be me…. I always believed that I would be a big star all over the world one day. And I picked the name Omar Sharif because it is easy to pronounce everywhere. [His real name: Michel Chalhoub.]
Lean had you flown to Jordan to test for the role. What was that like?
They asked me to come and read for a smaller part. There was a French guy with blue eyes who was going to play Sherif Ali because the producer [Sam Spiegel] was a real idiot, really, to tell you the truth. He didn’t know what I could do. He just wanted me to play a nothing part. David Lean looked at this French guy and said, ”This is ridiculous. I’m not going to keep this guy!”… I think that David Lean loved me. As soon as he saw me, he said, ”You are my guy! You’re going to be with me!”… And he put me in another one of his films, Doctor Zhivago.
You have one of the most famous entrances in cinema history, riding across the desert on a camel and shooting a Bedouin drinking at your well. It introduced you to the world.
That’s true…. That scene you’re talking about was the first scene I shot in the whole film and my first scene in a Hollywood movie. I had to take the water out of the well, and I was supposed to have a gun on my shoulder, and I practiced it the night before and it was very difficult. So I had the gun sewn onto my shoulder so it wouldn’t fall. The next day we did it and it went perfectly, and David Lean fell in love with me because he heard I spent the whole night trying to figure it out.
Was there a lot of drinking during the making of the film? You hear stories about Peter O’Toole…
We drank at night in our tents. We had boys who would come and serve us. We drank whiskey all night watching the stars in the sky…. Peter and I were like brothers immediately. He said to me, ”Your name is not Omar Sharif — no one is called Omar Sharif. Your real name is probably Freddy something!” And for the rest of the film and the rest of our lives, he’s never called me Omar. He calls me Freddy.
You’re known as a world-class backgammon player. Did you supplement your income on the set by gambling with your costars?
No, no, no. Not at all. It was later that I gambled. But that was a short time of my life.
You were nominated for an Oscar for the film.
Yes, and I thought it was incredible. I was told before the Oscars that I was going to get the award. And when I went to the ceremony, I was sitting next to David Lean. And he said to me, ”Omar, when they call your name, I want you to go up to the stage slowly.” And what happened was, I was so stupid, I got up before the lady announced the winner’s name and started to walk slowly to the stage like David Lean told me, and I got halfway and they called someone else’s name [Ed Begley for Sweet Bird of Youth]. I stopped and ran back to my seat! I couldn’t believe it. But when David Lean tells me something, I do it.
Lawrence brought you to Hollywood for the first time...
It was my first time in America! I was very happy to be somebody because I was nothing before.
Lawrence received 10 Oscar nominations and it won seven awards, including Best Picture. Why do you think it still holds up?
Look, it’s a wonderful film. But I never thought people would see it. There are no stars, it’s three hours and 45 minutes long, and there are no women. But for 50 years people have been telling me how great it is. All I know is, Peter is wonderful in it. I’m sure if he was in better health and still doing interviews, you’d want to talk to him instead of me. But that’s okay.