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Omar Sharif (left), as Sherif Ali, confers
with Peter O’Toole, playing T.E. Lawrence.
Omar Sharif recalls Lawrence of Arabia
By Steve Fisher
A SMALL PLANE landed in the desert, pulling up to a lone man standing in the sand to
greet it. The door opened and a young actor
from Cairo, Egypt, walked down the stairs.
The young actor was Omar Sharif, an established star of Egyptian films. The man waiting
for him was British director David Lean. The
desert was the setting for what would argu-ably become the greatest epic motion picture
of all time, Lawrence of Arabia.
Lawrence of Arabia tells a romanticized
version of the adventures of British military
officer T.E. Lawrence, who helped lead a loose
coalition of Bedouin tribes to fight off the
invading Turks during World War I, and
shows the emotional turmoil suffered by
Lawrence amid the violence of war.
What was supposed to be a five-month
production shoot lasted almost two years. At
times, the real drama was provided by
nature—stifling temperatures, sandstorms—
and by actors who performed their own
stunts, mostly riding camels.
“David Lean walked around me and looked at
my profile, my front and back, and he said, ‘I
want to be alone with him.’ He took me to a
place and he said, ‘Now, would you like to have
a moustache or a beard or something?’ I didn’t
have a moustache. He said, ‘I think you’d be
very good with a moustache. Do that!’ ”
Growing the moustache proved to be the
least arduous task of preparing for the film.
“I spent three months practicing on a
camel. I had to be very good riding the camel.
I did all the riding,” Sharif says, noting he had
never ridden a camel before. One scene called
for an attack on an Arabian city. Sharif, Peter
O’Toole (who played Lawrence) and hundreds of extras and opposing forces would be
charging at each other on their camels. To be
sure he wouldn’t fall off, Sharif tied himself to
jokes or anything like that. He was very seri-
ous; he was only thinking about his film.”
But Sharif claims they had a great rela-
tionship: “He didn’t like people too much. He
didn’t like actors too much either. But he
loved me very much, I think. It was because I
was a thing that he discovered, so I became
like his child or something like that.”
According to Sharif, Lean told him, “I want
you to never play any Arab film again because
you can be anything. I think everybody would
like to see you without being an Arab.”
Sharif went on to play such diverse roles
as the titular Russian character in Doctor
Zhivago, opposite Julie Christie, and Jewish
New York gambler Nicky Arnstein in Funny
Girl, co-starring with Barbra Streisand.
Lawrence of Arabia, released in 1962, won
seven Academy Awards, including Best
Picture, and nominations for O’Toole and
Sharif and screenwriters Robert Bolt and
Michael Wilson. The American Film Institute
has dubbed it the number-one epic of all time.
“It was everything for me, because it
made me,” says Sharif. “If this film had not
been made, I’d probably still be in Cairo, making Arabic films. It’s a miracle! I’m very lucky.”
For Omar Sharif, Lawrence of Arabia was
a gift. For fans of quality filmmaking, it’s a
Forging a bond
Today, we think of actors in a film spending time in luxurious trailers or posh hotel
rooms. The cast and crew of Lawrence of
Arabia stayed in tents in the middle of the desert. One of those tents happened to be a bar.
“[Peter and I] shared the same tent. He
was a wonderful person. He was very happy
to have an Arab friend. We had a lot of whiskey,” Sharif laughs.
Director Lean was not part of the party.
“[Lean was] 100 percent on his job,”
Sharif says. “He’s not somebody who makes
After viewing pictures of Egyptian actors
and picking Sharif, Lean said, “If he speaks
English, bring him here.”
“I went to an English school, thank God,”
Sharif, now 80, tells The Connection in a tele-
phone conversation from Paris, “and that
made me able to play the film.”
Recalling their first meeting, he says,
Lawrence of Arabia, in a premium gift set
loaded with extra features, is available on Blu-ray for the first time in all Costco warehouses.
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