Memories of Omar Sharif

Omar Sharif was dashing, charming and a favorite among baby boomers

Like filmgoers around the world, I felt a deep loss when I learned that actor Omar Sharif had died Friday of a heart attack at the age of 83.

Sharif's unforgettable performances in two David Lean masterpieces -- the 1962 epic "Lawrence of Arabia" opposite Peter O'Toole and 1965's "Dr. Zhivago" -- are part of cinematic history with particular resonance for filmgoers like myself who saw those films when they were young. I also have wonderful memories of watching the charming, stunningly handsome actor in the Lean films as well as co-starring with Barbra Streisand in 1968's "Funny Girl."

Sharif, who was already a popular actor in Egypt when he was cast in "Lawrence of Arabia," had one of the most indelible introductions ever filmed -- a long, slow shot of him traveling on a camel in the desert.

Several years ago, I was doing an interview on the phone with O'Toole, who jokingly recalled that he referred to Sharif, with whom he remained great friends throughout their lives, as Fred because he never believed anyone would have a name like Omar Sharif.

"Good old Fred. How could he be called Omar Sharif? I came to see his airplane [land on location],  and here is this beautiful young man with black hair and the whiskers staring out of the window, and they said he was Omar Sharif. I said, 'That's impossible.' "

Sharif became a superstar as "Doctor Zhivago." He was passionate, romantic and tragic as the Russian doctor and poet Yuri Zhivago and managed to express a multitude of emotions with his emotive brown eyes. And then of course, he was  dashing and charming as Nicky Arnstein, Fanny Brice's gambler husband with a penchant for ruffled shirts in  "Funny Girl."

The quality of his films seemed to fallen after "Funny Girl," though he came back briefly with an underrated 1974 Blake Edwards drama "The Tamarind Seed" with Julie Andrews and Richard Lester's thriller "Juggernaut" also released that year.

Back in 1989 when I was a writer for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, I had the opportunity to talk to Sharif in person for the restoration of "Lawrence of Arabia."  He was 57 then, still extraordinarily handsome; I don't recall much about what he said,  but I remember his to-die-for smile and gracious, continental attitude.

Flash forward to 1995 when I chatted with Sharif on the phone about a 30th anniversary edition of the newly restored  "Doctor Zhivago."  He was still charming but more wistful -- a sense of mortality permeated the conversation.

He admitted he had had a difficult time watching the restored film earlier in the year at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

"I wish I could stay as young as the film," said Sharif. "I tell you the truth, I couldn't sit through the whole thing because, you know, too many things came back to my mind. When you look at how you looked then and how you look now, it's depressing."

Audiences, he noted, "expect you to be even older than you really are. They say, 'My God, that's the guy from the '60s.' When you think that 30 years have passed so quickly, you think, 'Well, I hope the next 10 years won't pass that quickly."

I love talking to veteran performers, but sometimes it can be sad. And that was the case three years ago when I talked to Sharif on the phone about the 50th anniversary of "Lawrence."

Sharif, who died of a heart attack, was also suffering from Alzheimer's disease. And on the phone that day, he was complaining about having memory problems. He sounded tired, weary, nothing like the man I had encountered before.

But he brightened when he started to talk about Lean.  

"I loved him very  much," he said on the phone, adding he got the role because he spoke English.

"They looked at the photographs of all the Egyptian actors.  David said if he speaks English, bring him here."

Sharif answered a few more questions and suddenly stopped. He told me he was tired and quickly ended the conversation. I barely had a chance to say thank you and goodbye.

For me, though, Sharif will always be the Sherif Ali slowly coming in to the frame in "Lawrence," Yuri Zhivago gazing tenderly at Lara (Julie Christie) in "Doctor Zhivago" and Nicky wearing that ruffled shirt like no one else  in "Funny Girl."

He will be missed.

 

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