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50 Years On, Sharif Looks Back At 'Lawrence'

Dec 8, 2012
Originally published on December 9, 2012 8:26 am

In one of the greatest movies of all time, a World War I-era Englishman played by Peter O'Toole stops with his Arab guide at a well in the desert. As they drink, they look into the distance and 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. Now that's an entrance.

The man on the camel was Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali.

Lawrence of Arabia hit screens 50 years ago this month, and a new, boxed Blu-ray edition, complete with a book that's big enough to be a holiday cheese tray, is out this season.

The film confirmed David Lean as one of the great directors and starred a whole company of British actors, including Alec Guinness as King Faisal and Jack Hawkins as a haughty British officer. It also introduced Sharif to world audiences. The actor joins NPR's Scott Simon to talk about his first hit film.


Interview Highlights

On what made David Lean such a good director

"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 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 shot in the film. And he knew about this, and he loved me for it."

On the mustache he wore in the film

"They sent me a plane in Egypt to bring me in the desert, and the plane came down and there was one man [Lean] 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 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 talking to this brilliant, extraordinarily good director."

On his friendship with Peter O'Toole

"We were complete brothers. We slept in the same tent. We ate the same food. ... 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 having our whiskey at night. And we became very close friends."

On making a movie in a desert

"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 then. 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 the 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."

On what he expected from the film

"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 there was just secondary actors who were 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."

On his birth name

"My name was Michael. Michael, it was. My mother and my father were Catholics. ... First I went to a school where the priests were French, and then after, when I was 9 or 8 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."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

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:

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LAWRENCE OF ARABIA")

OMAR SHARIF: (as Sherif Ali) He was nothing. The well is everything. The Hasimi may not drink at our well. He knew that.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMEL)

SHARIF: 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.

SHARIF: 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.

SHARIF: 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.

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

SIMON: Really?

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

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LAWRENCE OF ARABIA")

SHARIF: (as Sherif Ali) Go back then. What did you bring us here for with your blasphemous conceit? Eh, English blasphemer? Aqaba, what is Aqaba? You will not be at Aqaba, English.

O'TOOLE: (as T.E. Lawrence) I should be at Aqaba. That is written in here.

SIMON: What made David Lean such a great director?

SHARIF: 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?

SHARIF: 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.

SHARIF: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LAWRENCE OF ARABIA")

O'TOOLE: (as T.E Lawrence) You are mad.

SHARIF: (as Sherif Ali) To be come to Aqaba by land, you should have to cross the Nefud Desert.

O'TOOLE: That's right.

SHARIF: The Nefud cannot be crossed.

O'TOOLE: I'll cross it if you will. You?

SHARIF: It takes more than a compass, Englishman. The Nefud is the worst place God created.

O'TOOLE: I can't answer for the place, only for myself.

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?

SHARIF: 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?

SHARIF: 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.

SHARIF: 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?

SHARIF: 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.

SIMON: Yes.

SHARIF: 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.

SHARIF: 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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.