Fond Memories — And Regrets — On Learning Of Omar Sharif's Death
A couple of years ago, I was asked if I could do a "tape-sync" in Paris for Scott Simon, the host of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday. A tape-sync is nothing glamorous; you just hold the microphone in front of the guest while the interviewer asks questions over the telephone. I was to send the good quality recorded sound to Washington, so the conversation wouldn't sound like a "phoner," as we call it.
Usually, with my own busy schedule, I don't have time to do tape-syncs. But I made time for this one because Scott Simon's interview was with Omar Sharif!
I saw the film Doctor Zhivago when I was 14 years old, growing up in Columbia, S.C. I was thunderstruck by the movie and its main character — the Russian poet-doctor Yuri Zhivago, played by Sharif.
The 1965 film, directed by David Lean, is based on Boris Pasternak's novel set during the Russian Revolution. The film's dramatic history, sweeping scenery and burning love story between Zhivago and Lara, played by Julie Christie, transfixed me.
I saw it over and over and fell madly in love with Yuri Zhivago. I even wrote to MGM asking for an 8-by-10 glossy photo of him.
I never heard back from the studio, but as I made my way to the Paris hotel where Sharif lived at the time, I carried in my bag a small wallet that I'd kept since high school.
In the front slot was a picture of Yuri Zhivago that I'd cut out of a magazine and laminated. I still had the wallet after all these years and thought I might show it to Sharif — and admit my girlhood crush.
Of course, he probably wouldn't care, I thought. He was probably arrogant. And he certainly would have no time for such silliness.
After waiting downstairs for a few minutes, I was taken up to Sharif's small suite.
When he opened the door, I thought he looked amazing. He would have been 80 or 81 at the time, but he still had those same emotion-filled, penetrating brown eyes.
There I was, with Yuri Zhivago.
Scott and Omar had a delightful interview about his role in the film Lawrence of Arabia, playing alongside Peter O'Toole. Sharif talked about being an unknown Egyptian actor thrust into stardom with that film and what it was like to live in the desert for a whole year. He talked about his first and only wife, how he'd converted to Islam to be with her. Sharif was born Christian.
The two talked and laughed while I held the microphone to Sharif's mouth — all the while staring at those eyes.
When it was over, Sharif did not usher me out. Instead, he offered me a glass of Champagne, and we continued our conversation.
He was kind, interested in me and gracious. I showed him my little wallet, and it amused him that he had in some way been my dream as a young girl.
Sharif said he loved children and told me I should have brought my 6-year-old son along to the interview. He reminisced about his own childhood and said he went to a British boarding school in Cairo. He told me his mother had sent him there because she wanted him to lose weight.
He said he liked to take long walks. He told me he didn't have many friends in Paris — his only son lived there, but was busy with his own life.
He said I should come have dinner with him sometime and bring my husband. I could hardly believe it.
It is one of my biggest regrets that I never took Omar Sharif up on that offer. I don't really know why. I let my harried life get in the way. And soon, months went by and it seemed too late to call him.
Today, sitting in Athens, covering another harried news story, I learned of Omar Sharif's death and was filled with regret that I didn't just stop whatever I was doing and go to dinner with him. Now it really is too late. Sharif died in Cairo of a heart attack. I couldn't help thinking that was how Yuri Zhivago died as well.