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.
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.
Jane Anderson is radio editor of Radio Times
You can read Jane’s 2006 interview with Omar Sharif on the next page.