My afternoon with Omar Sharif

Jane Anderson recalls Radio Times' last interview with the late film star - when it soon became clear he was suffering from dementia

It was the end of September 2006 when I flew to Paris to interview the actor Omar Sharif. He was making his acting debut on British radio in a three-part serial called The Cairo Trilogy – a family saga chronicling the decline of a middle-class family in early 20th-century Egypt.

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I had listened to the drama five times, taken copious notes, prepared my questions and rehearsed talking to a Hollywood legend without stumbling or blushing. I was as prepared as any journalist could be when I finally met Omar in the exclusive Paris hotel where he lived for most of the year.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the fact that this great actor had no memory whatsoever of starring in The Cairo Trilogy. He explained that he had never appeared in a radio play and knew nothing of Radio 4, the network that had commissioned it. Was this a masterstroke in unsettling a journalist – Sharif was, after all, a notable contract bridge player?

The answer was more tragic than this. Omar was in the early throes of Alzheimer’s disease. He spoke articulately and eloquently on Lawrence of Arabia, the politics of the Middle East, the one great love of his life (his first wife) and his extraordinary encounters with Margaret Thatcher. But The Cairo Trilogy was simply not present in his mind.

When I got back to London I contacted the producer to explain what I had encountered and he revealed that Sharif recorded his starring role as the narrator from the privacy of his hotel bedroom [pictured above, recording the narration], while the rest of the production was recorded on location in Cairo.

Omar Sharif treated me with the utmost respect during the two hours I spent with him, from tucking my chair in beneath me at the start of the interview to helping me on with my coat at the end. And so I treated him with respect upon my return and have never, until now, revealed the great gaps in his short-term memory.

When his son, Tarek El-Sharif, told the press in May of this year that his father was suffering from Alzheimer’s I was not surprised – just glad that he had been able to reach the end of his life (Omar Sharif died on 10th July 2015) with his dignity and reputation left intact.

Omar Sharif walks down the grand central staircase of the luxurious hotel in Paris where he lives for most of the year. Candelabras sparkle over his entrance to the foyer and, as he makes his way across to the bar, everyone’s eyes lock onto him. Dressed from head to foot in black, he has an undeniably powerful presence.

Surely he must be used to all this attention over the years, perhaps even court it? But, Sharif strongly disagrees, explaining that he is agoraphobic and always tries his best to avoid situations where he might encounter crowds. He never uses the Metro, preferring to walk three or four miles a day instead “at a good pace” – not bad for a 74-year-old man. And the same worry even governs his wardrobe: “I love not to be recognised. I always wear black or dark stuff because I have the impression that I am incognito. I would never dare a wear a coloured shirt.” This is pure self-delusion: he will always be recognised.

But this is where BBC radio drama wins out over Hollywood. Sharif was able to record his starring role as the narrator of this three-part serialisation of fellow Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz’s trilogy of novels in the privacy of his hotel room, while the rest of this remarkable drama was made entirely on location in Cairo with an Egyptian cast and crew. Does this good experience mean he is now a confirmed radio fan? Sharif responds immediately: “No, no, no. I watch sports on TV and the news. And if there is an old black-and-white film on at night I’ll watch that. The flicker of the television puts met to sleep.”

Surely it would be the love of a beautiful woman that sent him to sleep at night? “I never had passions for women. The only woman I had a passion for was my wife. I thought I would after I divorced her [in 1974], but I didn’t. I had a couple of adventures that did not last more than a few months. I would not like to wake up now and find someone in my room.”

So that’s the great sex-god myth well and truly laid to rest, but there was one female he was eager to talk about as we continued upon the subject of the fairer sex. “We need more female leaders. The situation in the Middle East at the moment is terrible, it’s a tragedy really, a macho stand-off. And I mean in the Arab world as well as the Western world. We need more women – but we don’t need Margaret Thatcher.” He giggles and goes on to explain that he’s a Socialist. But there’s an element of perhaps that actor doth protest too much going on – seconds later he reveals that he knows Maggie very well.

“She had a crush on me in a sort of a way. I was in a play in London for a year and she came to see me with her husband and daughter. They took me out to supper at Mirabelle’s [an exclusive London restaurant and we spent the whole night eating and drinking wine. Although she was having fun she never forgot to turn and ask me a question about the politics of the Middle East. She once invited me as a guest of honour to Downing Street to meet President Mubarak of Egypt. We’d never met before. She dragged me by the hand to him and said ‘What! You don’t know Omar Sharif ? He’s the most famous Egyptian in the world!’ This was the biggest blunder. I said to the President in Arabic ‘She’s quite mad. Everybody knows that.’”

He comes alive when he’s recalling moments like these but those dark eyes really start to flash when speaking of the film that made him famous outside Egypt, Lawrence of Arabia (below left). And he gives full credit to landing the role to the English public school diet. “When I got to the age of 11, I became fat. My mother wanted me to be beautiful and she thought “What is the worst food in the world? English.” So she sent me as a boarder at an English school to make me thin and it did. I was stuffed with brussel sprouts, but I became thin and learnt English. And had I not become thin and learnt English I would not be sitting with you today because I would not have been taken for Lawrence of Arabia. I would have been a fat Levantine timber merchant!”

Somehow I doubt this would ever have been Sharif’s destiny. His mother got her wish and he is beautiful – in spirit and in mind, as well as in looks. Life seems good at the moment but he has no time for romanticism or false hopes. Just like the central realistic tenet of Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, Sharif sees it thus: “Life is a matter of moments put together. You can’t say it’s good or it’s bad.” But as he helps me on with my coat, ever the gentleman and all eyes furtively upon him once more, I know that this has been one of life’s good moments.

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Jane Anderson is radio editor of Radio Times

Laurence of Arabia star Omar Sharif dies aged 83