On his first day in Hollywood in 1962, Omar Sharif went to jail. It was the night before the premiere of director David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, the epic that would make Sharif and Peter O’Toole household names around the world. The pair wanted to party, so they hit the Sunset Strip. Soon, they were getting drunk at a comedy club, laughing at the politically charged routine of the notorious Lenny Bruce. The actors went backstage and asked the hipster provocateur to come carouse with them. Bruce suggested they beat it back to his place. As Sharif tells the tale, ”We were sitting in Lenny’s living room, watching him put something into his arm” – and here, Sharif pantomimes the mechanics of injecting drugs – ”when suddenly the police came in, and tossed us in the clink.” Sharif started to sweat: He and O’Toole had put the Lawrence premiere in jeopardy, and his ambition to become an American movie star was instantly imperiled.
”However,” recalls the Egyptian actor on a recent stormy afternoon in Los Angeles, ”I had seen enough American movies to know that you get one phone call.” So Sharif dialed up the Lawrence super-producer, Sam Spiegel, who two years earlier had traveled to Egypt to cast Sharif, already a big-screen star in his native land.
”Sam! It’s Omar!”
There was a pause on Spiegel’s end. ”Omar who?”
”Omar Sharif! How many Omars do you know in Hollywood?”
Within an hour, Spiegel had arranged for the actors’ release. Bruce’s, too. ”Actually, O’Toole refused to go unless Lenny got out also,” says Sharif. ”You know how you get when you’re drunk. Someone you met two hours ago is suddenly your best friend.”
Sharif laughs. The sliver of a gap between his front teeth is unabashedly exposed by his sweet, easy smile. Sharif has scores of these stories, and he likes telling them. Last year, while he was shooting Hidalgo, Disney’s desert-set action-adventure starring Viggo Mortensen, the cast and crew would congregate each night around his dinner table and listen to tales of ribaldry from a time when Sharif was still a top leading man, thanks to Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago (also directed by Lean; a Best Picture Oscar nominee), and Funny Girl, the 1968 musical starring Barbra Streisand.
Hidalgo, in fact, serves as a reminder of why the world fell for Sharif’s gentle charisma and gentlemanly air in the first place. As the proud and steely sheikh who organizes a 3,000-mile horse race across the vast and treacherous Arabian Desert, the 71-year-old Sharif stirs memories of his Oscar-nominated debut in Lawrence. ”We looked at other actors, but they just didn’t have the cachet Omar Sharif had,” says Hidalgo director Joe Johnston. ”He’s practically Hollywood royalty. He brings such dignity and class to the part. The last time American audiences saw him in a big movie was probably Funny Girl. In fact, I had assumed he retired.”
He didn’t. Unfortunately, Sharif has made that conclusion a rather easy one to come to.