A long time in the desert

Special to The Times

Omar SHARIF has been a screen actor for 50 years. Yet he is not one to mouth platitudes about this remarkable career achievement, which encompasses some 90 movies. In fact, few actors are more candid about their body of work. “I went 25 years without making a good film,” he insists; on thinking back, he concludes it’s nearer 30.

Strolling elegantly through a hotel lobby here, he virtually stops conversation; guests sipping drinks do sudden double-takes, pointedly nudging one another and gesturing toward him with their eyes. At 71, Sharif retains all his considerable presence.

That mane of jet-black hair is steel-gray now and swept back from his brow. He wears round spectacles and a week’s growth of thick stubble. Yet this is recognizably the man who was one of the big screen’s leading heartthrobs, especially when he breaks into his trademark gap-toothed smile.


“The fans who come up and talk to me these days are either older people with fond memories or young people whose grandmothers or mothers love me,” he reflects. “That’s moving. It’s good to be remembered.”

He’ll be remembered next week in Los Angeles with a tribute at AFI Fest 2003, where the audience will get to see him in a small, well-regarded French film, “Monsieur Ibrahim.” But even without these reminders, Sharif retains his hold on film fans. How could he not? In the 1960s, Egyptian-born Sharif was in three unforgettable starring roles: as T.E. Lawrence’s friend, the Bedouin prince Sherif Ali, in David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia”; as the charismatic Russian poet-doctor wooing Julie Christie’s Lara in the title role of “Doctor Zhivago”; and as the wayward, irresistibly attractive cad Nicky Arnstein, breaking Barbra Streisand’s heart in “Funny Girl.”

Women went weak-kneed at the sight of him; soon after “Doctor Zhivago” opened, he reportedly received 3,000 proposals of marriage. Critic Pauline Kael memorably called him “a walking love scene.” Back then, Sharif was tagged the most famous Egyptian since Cleopatra. “It’s true when people recognize me these days, those three films are the ones they talk about,” he concedes. “But it doesn’t bother me. It’s better than having done none they remember. I find it endearing.”

He admits his subsequent movies never matched the splendor of those three hits. This was partly bad luck: “What killed my career was appearing in a succession of films you wouldn’t turn down,” he recalls ruefully. “They were by good directors, but they were bad films.” He reels some of them off: Fred Zinnemann’s “Behold a Pale Horse,” John Frankenheimer’s “The Horsemen,” Sidney Lumet’s “The Appointment.”

It didn’t help that in those less enlightened days, the exotic Sharif was too often cast as an all-purpose foreigner. He was a Yugoslav in “The Yellow Rolls-Royce,” a Mexican in “McKenna’s Gold,” an Austrian in “Mayerling,” a Greek in “The Break-in” and a German in “The Last Valley” and “The Night of the Generals.” (In the latter film, his hair was streaked blond.) But Sharif concedes he also signed up for several films that even in advance looked rotten. “It was partly my fault,” he says, sighing. “I lost money on gambling, buying horses, things like that. So I made those movies which I knew were rubbish.”

Gambling and romance

Craps and roulette have long exerted a dangerous fascination for him. In 1975, he was forced to sell his lavish bachelor pad in Paris to pay gambling debts. Tales of his extravagance abound. On one day in Deauville, he lost the equivalent of $200,000 on horses and cards. “That’s why I was in so many trashy, idiotic films,” he says wearily. “I’d call my agent and tell him to accept any part, just to bail myself out.”

He always liked cards, even if money was not involved. Early on, he was so bored between scenes on film sets that he taught himself bridge, gradually improving to become one of the world’s best players. “My form of gambling now is owning horses,” he muses. “I have shares in 10, and I own two outright. They race, they don’t win much, but the young ones keep coming through. There’s hope eternal when you own horses.”

Romance was his other Achilles’ heel. Sharif was no stranger to women, and in his younger days he often became entangled with his leading ladies. But none came to anything. Instead he slipped into the role of international playboy and jet-setter, never establishing roots. “I had no base,” he reflects. “Contrary to all other actors in the world, I was the only foreigner in every single cinema industry -- French, Italian, English or American. I was the outsider.” He moved nomadically from one film set to another, trading on his exotic good looks and deep reserves of charm.

Both have stayed with him. At the Venice Film festival this year, he received a Golden Lion award for his career. On Nov. 11 at the ArcLight Cinemas, Sharif will receive the AFI Fest Tribute for his career’s work, followed Nov. 12-13 by a retrospective of four of his films at the Skirball Cultural Center.

“I’m being given all these nonposthumous honors because it’s my 50th year in film,” he says dryly. “Best to receive them before you die, I think.”

A general name change

He was born Michael Chalhoub in Alexandria. Raised a Catholic, he came from a high-born family; his father was a rich timber merchant and his mother a friend of Egypt’s King Farouk (with whom, tellingly, she often played cards). At 21, he married actress Fatem Hamama, became a Muslim and changed his name to Omar Sharif, which he felt would be easier for the Western world to pronounce. (Omar was after Gen. Omar Bradley; “Sharif,” he thought, sounded like “sheriff.”)

That same year he became a star in Egypt, being plucked from obscurity to play the lead in a drama, “The Blazing Sun.” He had made a dozen more films in Cairo by 1960, when American producer Sam Spiegel sought him for the role in “Lawrence of Arabia” that would change his life. Originally a light-eyed actor was signed to play Sherif Ali, and director David Lean realized his mistake.

Sharif, who had no lawyer or agent, signed a seven-year contract with Columbia for $50,000 a film, up to and including “Funny Girl.” It seemed a lot of money but was far below the rate for American or British stars. “It was a terrible deal,” he says now.

But nothing lessened his impact; he literally rode to global stardom on a camel. Ali is first seen in “Lawrence” as a tiny dot on a desert horizon that shimmers in the heat; he gradually becomes more distinct as he nears the camera. It’s among the longest, most suspenseful shots in film history.

He and Fatem had a son, Tarek, but divorced in 1968, when Sharif moved to Paris. He loved the city’s food and wine but never found another woman he wanted to live with.

He is still based there, though in a different style from his younger days: “I live in a hotel. I’ve lived alone for ages. Hotels are quite nice when you get older. When you need company you go down to the bar. Lots of the customers know me. I’ve got a place at the bar, my stool. And if you feel bad in the night you can always call the concierge and say, ‘Send an ambulance.’ ” He chuckles grimly. “If you’re alone in a flat, you can feel scared at night.”

This last point is not a trivial one: Sharif underwent a heart bypass operation in 1993. Yet typically he found something positive in the experience. Egyptian cardiac surgeon professor Sir Magdi Yacoub, who operated on him at Britain’s Harefield Hospital, became a close friend. Yacoub is founder patron of Chain of Hope, a charity that helps medical volunteers to travel worldwide, treat children born with heart defects and train local doctors to assist their recovery.

These days he seems happiest playing the family patriarch. His son, Tarek, is 46, and Sharif has two grandsons: Omar, 20, a university student in Canada, and Karem, 4, who lives in Egypt with his parents. He worries incessantly that his son and grandchildren are financially secure: “That’s another reason I didn’t make a good movie for 25 years.”

Until now, that is. He is proud of his title role in the new French film “Monsieur Ibrahim.” He plays a kindly old Muslim grocer living in Paris who befriends a sad Jewish teenage boy with uncaring, neglectful parents; they travel together to the old man’s Turkish homeland. With a release scheduled for early next year in the U.S., “Monsieur Ibrahim,” directed by Francois Dupeyron, is being heralded as a comeback for Sharif.

“It’s beautifully written,” he says, “and it has nice big chunks of dialogue, which is what I like to do, rather than riding horses or camels. I’d turned down everything and stopped working for four years. I said, ‘I’m going to stop doing that rubbish and keep some dignity.’ But when I read the script for ‘Monsieur Ibrahim,’ I phoned the producers immediately. I said, ‘Hang on, I’m coming, wait for me.’

“My problem is finding parts. When you’re young and successful, they write or adapt parts for you. But when you’re an old chap, let’s be frank, you don’t sell tickets anymore. If they need an old Englishman, American or Italian, there are plenty of actors around. So what’s open for me? Old Arabs. And that’s what I play in this film.”