After 42 years, Sharif and O'Toole decide the time is right to get their epic act together again

Dan Glaister in Los Angeles
Saturday October 30, 2004
The Guardian

The last time they met on screen, Omar Sharif was a small dot riding out of a desert mirage to join Peter O'Toole, the dashing and rebellious British army office TE Lawrence. Now, 42 years after the release of Lawrence of Arabia, widely hailed as one of the greatest films ever made, the two veteran actors have teamed up for a second time to make another historical epic.
One Night with the King tells the story of the Biblical figure Esther, who became the queen of Persia, and, according to myth and movie, saved the Jewish nation from annihilation. Although the story unfolds in present-day Iraq and Iran, for obvious reasons the producers of the $16m (?9m) epic have chosen to shoot their film in north-western India.

The veteran stars, both now 72, must be hoping that their new venture does not entail the hardships they endured the last time they worked together. "Omar Sharif and I spent nine months in the desert, day after day for nine months," O'Toole said in an interview in the Guardian last year. "In Arabia, on the spot where it all took place. We were 400 miles away from water. We lived in tents."

On location, O'Toole decided to call Sharif "Fred". "No one in the world is called Omar Sharif," he said. "Your name must be Fred."

While that collaboration between the two actors resulted in an Oscar for best picture, the prospects for One Night with the King may not be so bright. Lawrence of Arabia, directed by David Lean, fresh from his success with The Bridge on the River Kwai, had a stellar supporting cast - Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Claude Rains - and a Robert Bolt screenplay.

One Night with the King features former Bros star Luke Goss as King Xerxes and Tiffany Dupont as Esther. It also features Lord of the Rings stars John Rhys-Davis and Noble, and Indian actor Aditya Bal. The script is based on a novel by Tommy Tenney, and the director is Michael Schaeben.

But the new film's producers, 8X Entertainment, who made The Omega Code, are hoping some of the lustre from actors' last encounter will rub off on the new film. "Having motion picture legends Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif starring on the same bill only adds to the film's overall mystique," publicist Susan Zahn said in a press statement. O'Toole will play the prophet Samuel in the film, while Sharif takes the role of Prince Memucan.

Lawrence of Arabia turned the Irish-born O'Toole and the Egyptian Sharif into international stars. Sharif had previously only appeared in Arabic films, but went on to star in Doctor Zhivago in 1965. He has not looked back, subsequently appearing in some 80 films, most recently starring in this year's Hidalgo.

O'Toole, who got the part of Lawrence because of his performance in a small role in the British film The Day They Robbed the Bank of England, made the most of the opportunity to play the charismatic Lawrence. Although the part was originally offered to Albert Finney, and Marlon Brando was rumoured to be in the running, O'Toole, with the support of Lean, made it his own.

Noel Coward remarked after seeing the film that if they had made O'Toole any prettier it would have to be retitled "Florence of Arabia". But the epic provided the cornerstone for a career that has seen O'Toole make close to 80 films.

At the time of the 1962 original release, however, critics were divided about his performance. The Monthly Film Bulletin was not convinced he could hold the ambitious, three and threequarter hour film. "O'Toole's performance, likeable, intelligent and devoted, lacks that ultimate star quality which would lift the film along with it," wrote the journal's critic. But the Guardian disagreed, singling out O'Toole for a "brilliant" performance and crediting him with portraying "with total credibility all the contradictions" of Lawrence.

Lawrence of Arabia, concluded the Guardian's critic, "threatens to degenerate at times into another epic. But O'Toole, never quite lost, always returns to remind us just in time of poor, great Lawrence".

Last year O'Toole returned to the historical epic in Troy, a big-budget Hollywood spectacular that failed to live up to its billing. O'Toole, who has never been one to temper his opinions in public, said this week of the film, directed by Wolfgang Petersen, that he had thought it a disaster.

"Ugh, what a disaster. The director, that kraut, what a clown he was," O'Toole said at the Savannah film festival in Georgia. "When it was all over, I watched 15 minutes of the finished movie and then walked out."

One Night with the King is due to be released on March 25 next year, to coincide with Good Friday and the Jewish feast of Purim.

Two lives on screen

Omar Sharif

Born Michel Shalhoub, April 10 1932, in Alexandria, Egypt. Son of a timber merchant

Educated Victoria College, Cairo

Married Actress Faten Hamama in February 1955. Marriage dissolved in 1967. One son Tarek, born in 1957

Films include: Lawrence of Arabia 1962, The Fall of the Roman Empire 1964, Genghis Khan 1965, Dr Zhivago 1965, Funny Girl 1968, Che! 1969, The Last Valley 1970, The Tamarind Seed 1974, Juggernaut 1974, The Mysterious Island of Captain Nemo 1974, Funny Lady 1975, The Pink Panther Strikes Again 1976, Mr Ibrahim and les Fleurs du Coran 2003

Recreation Bridge, owning, breeding and racing horses

Reputation Womaniser. Boasted he had received more than 3,000 marriage proposals in a week. Relationships with Barbra Streisand and Ava Gardner

Peter O'Toole

Born August 2 1932, in Connemara, Ireland. Son of bookmaker

Education Royal Academy of Dramatic Art

Marriages Sian Phillips in 1960, dissolved in 1979. Two daughters. Karen Brown in 1983, dissolved same year. One son

Plays include: The Long and the Short and the Tall, 1959; Hamlet, 1963; Macbeth, 1980; Pygmalion, 1984, and 1987; Our Song, 1992

Films include: Lawrence of Arabia, 1962; Becket, 1963; What's New, Pussycat, 1965; The Lion in Winter, 1968; Goodbye Mr Chips, 1969; Man of La Mancha, 1972; Zulu Dawn, 1978; The Last Emperor, 1987

Recreation Warned in 1975 that he was likely to die if he couldn't control drinking

Reputation "His voice had a crack like a whip... most important of all you couldn't take your eyes off him" Richard Burton