The late Omar Sharif will be remembered by many people as a straight, dramatic actor thanks to his roles in such classic films as Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. But to fans of cult comedies, and in particular the work of writer-directors David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, and Jim Abrahams, Sharif may be most famous for playing Agent Cedric in 1984’s spy spoof Top Secret!, the trio’s follow-up to their smash-hit, Airplane!.
EW spoke with David Zucker about his memories of working with Sharif, who died Friday of a heart attack at the age of 83.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you come to cast Omar Sharif in Top Secret!?
DAVID ZUCKER: We did the movie in London and we were looking for very well-respected actors who hadn’t been in a crazy comedy. As in Airplane!, we didn’t want to cast actors who were comedians. I think the casting director suggested Omar Sharif and we reacted: “Are you kidding? We’ll never get Omar Sharif!” But as we learned thoughout our careers, you’d be surprised at the people you can get. We met with him and he was game. He liked the script. He knew who we were and he knew how he was being used in the movie. He was fine with it. It was probably less of a leap of faith for him that it was for Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges and Peter Graves [in Airplane!]. Peter Graves, for instance, had to be somewhat convinced.
His character is treated terribly in the course of the film.
Right. We squirted water in his face, and hit him with whipped cream, and an exploding cigar. Through the whole thing, he maintained that serious dignity, which made it all the funnier. He was a good sport through it all. He didn’t complain and he had some really uncomfortable sequences to get through. We had to put him in this kind of coffin-like contraption to create the illusion that he was encased in this iron block and he never complained. He wanted to get it right. He was always asking, “Was that okay?” We always assured him that it was cracking us up. We were trying not to crack up too loudly because we didn’t want to impinge on the soundtrack.
When was the last time you saw the film?
Probably about six months ago. They played it at a film festival in L.A. I love seeing Omar. He’s still funny. That stuff, it still gets laughs. I have all good memories of him.
I have this image of him as an almost James Bond-ian figure, playing cards at a casino with a lady on each arm.
Right, he was a card player. He was a gourmet. He was a connoisseur of fine wines. He loved dining.
Did you eat out with him? Or play cards with him?
We never played cards. But we spent a week toward the end of his shooting time preparing a dinner in his honor at Jerry—my brother — and our producer Hunt Lowry’s flat in Chelsea. We invited everybody and everybody dressed up. Because we were going to have a dinner for Omar Sharif, so it had to be right! We cooked, we bought wine, the whole thing. And it was a wonderful, wonderful party — except that Omar never showed up. [Laughs] We waited, and waited, and waited. I think he probably accepted to be polite and I don’t think he realized that the party was in his honor.
Did he say where he had been?
We never found out. It was at the end of his shooting. We never saw him again. We never got to ask him. Now, I’m never going to get to find out!
You can see the trailer for Top Secret! below.