50 Years On, Sharif Looks Back At 'Lawrence' The Oscar-winning epic Lawrence of Arabia was first released in theaters 50 years ago this month. NPR's Scott Simon talks with Omar Sharif about playing Sherif Ali in the film.
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50 Years On, Sharif Looks Back At 'Lawrence'

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50 Years On, Sharif Looks Back At 'Lawrence'

50 Years On, Sharif Looks Back At 'Lawrence'

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In one of the greatest movies of all time, a World War I era Englishman and his Arab guide stop at a well in the desert. But as they drink, they see a lone figure in black galloping toward them on a camel. The Arab man recognizes him and draws a gun. The lone figure brings him down with a single musket shot, and then pulls up and tells the Englishman:



: Salaam. Tut, tut, tut.

PETER O'TOOLE: (as T.E. Lawrence) Sherif Ali, so long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people - greedy, barbarous and cruel, as you are.

SIMON: Now, that's an entrance: Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali, Peter O' Toole in "Lawrence of Arabia." By the way also, an uncredited camel.

: I'm not happy because O'Toole is not very well. He can't speak with us today. So, anyway, I'm going to do the talking, OK.

SIMON: Well, I'm very glad. We are obviously joined now by the great Omar Sharif, because "Lawrence of Arabia" hit the screens 50 years ago.

: Yes. It was my first film outside of Egypt. I was 30 years old when I came out to Egypt, and I only went to another desert very close to it to play "Lawrence of Arabia." Nothing exciting. It was all a desert thing, completely. I think everything that was good in that film was because David Lean was a brilliant director. I made two films with him - I made that one and another one after that where I was playing a Russian person or something like that...

SIMON: You were Dr. Zhivago. I know that.

: They're my only two good films. I don't consider that I have any other film that was good for me.

SIMON: Really?

: And it's only - this is about 50 years ago.


SIMON: What made David Lean such a great director?

: You know, I don't know. He is a brilliant - he was a brilliant person. He didn't think of anything except films. He did not think of theater. He did not think of anything else in his life. He didn't like actors. He hated actors. But he loved me. I don't know why. Because, you know, I didn't know myself what I was going to do. And the first shot I had to make, I spent the whole night to practice it for the next day, my first shots in the film. And he knew about this and he loved me for it. Thank you. Thank you, David, I'm saying.

SIMON: Was it his idea that you have a mustache?

: Yes. They sent me a plane in Egypt to bring me in the desert. And the plane came down and there was one man standing in the desert. And they stopped the plane in front of him. I came down from the plane, and he didn't speak to me. He went around my head to see the profiles, to see what kind of hair I have, what a face I have. And then he said to me, Omar, come. I have to speak to you. We went to the place where they do dressing and things like that. He sat with me. He said, Omar, what you think about a mustache, a black mustache? That would be good, wouldn't it, Omar? I always said, yes, sir, yes, it's wonderful. I came from Egypt. I couldn't believe myself that talking to this brilliant, extraordinary good director.

SIMON: I gather you and Peter O'Toole became very good friends.

: Yes. We were complete brothers. We slept in the same tent. We ate the same food. It was a wonderful thing when we were at night, we put our table outside the tent. The sky was wonderful at night. The stars were wonderful. We just sat there and talked and had some whiskey. We used to like our whiskey at night. And we became very close friends.


SIMON: Was it difficult to make a film in the middle of the desert, particularly with all the camels and all the people and trains and everything?

: I tell you, it wasn't difficult for me at all. On the other hand, I was rather happy to be in the desert. I was rather happy not to have women. I don't know why. I was married and my wife, you know, wanted to see me all the time. She tried to come one or two times in the desert but she wasn't allowed to come there. But I enjoyed my one year - it took one year of shooting this film in the desert - and I was happy being with fellows, being with a brilliant director, brilliant actors with me and all that. It was really wonderful for me. It was a great lesson for me to become an actor.

SIMON: Did you expect the film to become anything like the huge hit it became?

: I didn't at all think that anyone would even look at this film. It's three hours and 40 minutes or something like that, and Peter O'Toole and myself were unknown, both of us, when we made the film. And it was just secondary actors who are well-known and all that, but you couldn't believe that the people would go and sit for three hours and 40 minutes with no women, with no loving, with no action. The action was very little in that film. All you did is get onto the camel and go around in the desert. That's all.

SIMON: Mr. Sharif, I've read that you were born with a different name.

: Yes. My name was Michael. Michael, it was. My mother and my father were Catholics. And first I went to the school where the priests were French. And then after, when I was nine or eight years old, I went to an English school - thank God. And there was a theater there. And that's how I started to become an actor.

SIMON: When people see "Lawrence of Arabia" now, do you kind of hope that they're particularly notice something or react to something?

: I don't know. I don't know. I mean, I know after the film came out and when I went to the opening and all that, I realize that it made a very good effect on everybody. It was really good. Till today, I see they always talk to me about "Lawrence of Arabia." And, you know, I say why don't you speak about "Dr. Zhivago?" "Dr. Zhivago" is a very good film too.


: But the other film is more, I don't understand what happens. I mean, I don't understand what happened exactly. It's a very special film, I think.

SIMON: Well, Mr. Sharif, a real pleasure talking to you.

: Thank you.

SIMON: Omar Sharif. He starred in "Lawrence of Arabia," which has been restored in a new boxed Blu-ray edition for its 50th anniversary.

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