The bad news was confirmed Friday morning: Omar Sharif, the Egyptian-born actor who shot to superstardom in the 1960s after scoring back-to-back-to-back hits with “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Dr. Zhivago” and “Funny Girl,” died on Friday in a Cairo hospital. He was 83, and had also been battling Alzheimer’s. According to his agent Steve Kenis, the cause was heart attack.
And here’s a bittersweet irony: In what likely will be his last feature film, Laila Marrakchi’s amusing dramedy “Rock the Casbah,” Sharif gives one of his finest performances of recent years — as a ghost who invites us to join him at his own funeral.
As fate would have it, I’ve had only one opportunity to speak with Sharif, during a 2003 interview graciously arranged by the folks at Sony Pictures Classics to promote “Monsieur Ibrahim” (for which Sharif would win a 2004 Cesar award as Best Actor). The conversation would also serve well as background material for a profile of Viggo Mortensen I later wrote for Cowboys & Indians magazine. Sharif and Mortensen had co-starred in “Hidalgo,” the 2004 adventure drama about an American cowboy who competes in a long-distance horse race across the Arabian Desert. During the on-location filming in Morocco, the two men developed a mutual admiration society that greatly enhanced their on-screen interplay.
“Not only was I working with this wonderful actor I knew best from ‘Lawrence of Arabia,'” Mortensen told me. “We were working in some of the (Moroccan locations) where they shot some of that movie 40 years ago. That was an amazing experience for me. I mean, to be working there with the man himself, Omar Sharif, was great just in terms of being a witness to film history.
“But it was even better to get to know that man as a human being. He’s a very generous, extremely professional actor. But it doesn’t take more than a few minutes to tell that he’s also a genuinely intelligent, well-read person. And he’s got this aura about him that’s beyond anything a lighting designer or a cameraman can do. He just has a certain gleam in his eye, and that smile of his. He’s so in the moment, and so alive. He just radiates a love of life.”
I dearly hope I captured some of that spirit in a 2004 piece I wrote about Sharif. Here it is, in a slightly expanded version.
Check out Omar Sharif in such career highlights as David Lean’s “Dr. Zhivago” (1965), William Wyler’s “Funny Girl” (1968), James Clavell’s “The Last Valley” (1971), Blake Edwards’ “The Tamarind Seed” (1974), Richard Lester’s “Juggernaut” (1974) – and, of course, Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” (1965).