“I'd rather be playing bridge than making a bad movie”
I first met Omar Sherif while covering a celebrity bridge tournament in Deaxville. I was immediately taken, not only with his physical beauty, but also his charm and stature. When he rose from his table to take a break, I then noticed his profile. It was one that most men would sell their soul to the devil to have. When he passed me by he smiled at me. For my part, I swooned.
I was – and still am – happily married. But I often wondered that if he showed me any encouragement, would I have broken my marital vows? Needless to say, I have never been tempted since, but there’s always that one – that one special person – who crosses your path and subjects everything to a fleeting reconsideration. Oh, well, it was only the briefest of encounters, less than momentary. He returned to his table, and after the day ended, left with a beautiful woman on his arm; one whose fur and jewelry spoke much louder than she could have hoped. I returned to my office, and later to my husband and children wiser in the knowledge that I didn’t succumb.
If he only knew of the endless afternoons we spent together in the dark of the cinema. I would often skip school to spend my time watching him. I don’t know how many times I saw Lawrence of Arabia or Doctor Zhivago. I even saw his Egyptian films. Paris was always noted for its many “art houses” where one could take in movies from America to India to Vietnam.
My husband, bless his heart, is not a fan of Sharif. He likes many of the movies, particularly Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, but as he once told me, “You overdosed me on that man.” To this I plead guilty. We have practically all his works on DVD and I confess to running them frequently. But as I tell my husband, “This is no mere mortal we’re discussing. This is Adonis in the flesh.” He laughs and retreats to his office for a few moments of sanity while I get my Omar fix.
And now the world is a sadder place, at least for me. On July 10, Omar Sharif died in Cairo from a heart attack. He was 83. Steve Kenis, his agent, relayed the sad news.
There are few actors who can fill a screen with the verve and panache Sharif brought to each of his roles. His dark, handsome presence commanded the screen whenever he appeared. He began his career in Egypt, his first film being Devil of the Sahara in 1954. His worldwide debut came in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia in 1962, as Sherif Ali. Multillingual (he was fluent in Arabic, English, French, Greek, Italian, and Spanish), Omar was also multicultural as well. He once told me during an interview that the worst fate that can befall an actor is to be typecast. And throughout his career he did his best to avoid that. In The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), he was an Armenian king; in Behold a Pale Horse (1964), he played a Spanish priest; The Yellow Rolls-Royce saw him as a Yugoslav patriot fighting the Nazis; in Genghis Khan (1965), he was the conquering Mongol leader, and Doctor Zhivago (1965) saw him as a Russian physician-poet during the Revolution. He didn’t stop there: in Night of the Generals (1967), he was a German intelligence officer; Funny Girl (1968), a shifty gambler, and, in his biggest career misstep, he played Che Guevera to Jack Palance’s Fidel Castro in the bombastic flop, Che! (1969).
Looking back, it could well be said that it was during the Sixties that Sharif’s career peaked. In Lawrence of Arabia as Sherif Ali, a chieftain who joins forces with Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence, he received an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor. Doctor Zhivago, usually regarded as his best role, gave him the starring role as a sensitive and brooding doctor/poet who begins a love affair – doomed from the start – with another man’s wife, played exquisitely by Julie Christie, amid the violence and anarchy of the Russian Revolution.
Zhivago couldn’t have been further away from his next notable role: that of a junior intelligence officer assigned to investigate a trio of generals, one of who is suspected of killing prostitutes, in Night of the Generals. It also reunited him with O’Toole. And he went from playing a Nazi to playing card-sharp Nicky Arnstein in 1968’s Funny Girl, with whom Barbra Streisand’s Fanny Brice falls in love.
Although Sharif’s career continued after the debacle of Che!, the choice roles shrank, along with the actor’s enthusiasm for his vocation. He loved to gamble and was a regular in casinos all over France. When he wasn’t at the roulette wheel or baccarat table, he could be found at the horse races. Sharif once told me that he never did anything halfway, and proved it by becoming an aficionado of horse racing. He had a long relationship with horse trainer David Smaga, and was often spotted at racecourses, with Deauville-LaTouques Racecourse being his favorite. He bought a couple of racehorses and won a couple of important races. His horse, Don Bosco, won the Prix Gontaut-Biron, Prix Perth, and Prix du Muguet. He also had a regular tipping column in a Parisian racing magazine.
Another pursuit that would take up more and more of his time was the world of competitive bridge, where he was widely regarded as an expert on the game. At one time, Sharif ranked among the world’s top 50 contract bridge players. He played an exhibition match before the Shah of Iran. He also wrote a number of books as well as penning a syndicated bridge column with Charles Goren and licensing his name to a bridge video game. He even found the time in 1977 to write his autobiography, with Marie-Therese Guinchard, titled The Eternal Male.
And if all this weren’t enough, Sharif was also a die-hard football fan and dedicated follower of the fortunes of Hull City. Sharif became a fan after sharing a flat with co-star Tom Courtenay during the filming of Doctor Zhivago. He became such an avid fan that, if he were not near a radio or television on match day, he would call the club and get the results. In 2010, Sharif received an honorary degree from the University of Hull in recognition of his fervor and used the occasion to meet his favorite player, prolific striker Ken Wagstaff.
If Sharif seemed to be most comfortable playing characters born with a silver spoon in their mouth, there was good reason. He was born Michel Demitri Shalhoub on April 10, 1932, in Alexandria, Egypt. His father, Joseph, was a wealthy timer merchant from Lebanon who settled in Egypt in the early 20th century. His mother, Claire Saada, was a Syrian beauty and noted society hostess. She frequently played cards with Egyptian King Farouk, who was a regular visitor until he was deposed in 1952.
In his youth, Omar was a chubby boy, and in the hope that he might lose some weight, his parents enrolled him at Victoria College in Alexandria. Young Omar found the school’s food quite appalling, and lost the weight. He also showed an aptitude for languages. He graduated from Cairo University with a degree in mathematics and physics and went straight to work in his father’s lumber company, specializing in selling exotic woods. This lasted for several years, until ennui got to him and he journeyed to England to study acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.
As noted earlier, he began his film career in Egypt, changing his name to Omar el-Sharif. (Sharif means “the noble man” in Arabic.) He soon shot to stardom, partially due to his successful paring with popular Egyptian actress Faten Hamama. They starred together in the 1954 drama Struggle in the Valley. In the movie, Hamama shared a kiss with him, although she had previously refused to kiss on the screen. The couple’s on-screen romance was continued off-screen as well, and in 1955 they wed in Cairo. In order to marry Hamama, Omar converted to Islam from his original Melkite Greek Catholicism. The marriage was a passionate one, but not a long-lasting one. They had a son, Tarek, who survives him, before separating in 1966 and divorcing in 1974.
A strong factor in the collapse of his marriage was the draconian restriction on travel instituted by the Nasser government, which impeded his ability to appear in international productions. He decided to remain in Europe and lived in Hollywood for a while, though he never really took to the attractions of Tinseltown. As he told me, “It provided me with fame but also brought with it a loneliness I couldn’t get past. I missed my homeland greatly.” After leaving Hollywood, he became a virtual nomad before settling down again in Cairo after Nasser’s death.
At any rate, Omar wasn’t really the marrying type. He never re-married after his divorce; too busy romancing his co-stars. In many of his films he carried on with a co-star, whether the leading lady or supporting player. His most notorious liaison was with co-star Barbra Streisand on the set of Funny Girl in 1968. When word of their affair reached Egypt, authorities there were aghast; Streisand, besides being Jewish, was also an outspoken advocate of Israel. For the Egyptians, this was tantamount to sleeping with the enemy. Even worse, their affair took place while the Six-Day War was in full swing. On the verge of being stripped of his citizenship, government officials asked him to justify himself. Sharif simply replied, “When I kiss a woman, I never ask her nationality or her religion.” He even had the temerity to appear in the 1975 sequel, Funny Lady, although James Caan, playing showman Billy Rose, was the romantic lead.
Other steamy affairs took place with Ava Gardner, Ingrid Bergman, Anouk Aimee, and Catherine Deneuve, with whom he starred in Mayerling, a 1968 film about the tragic love affair of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria and his lover, Baroness Mary Versara.
As the years wound into the Seventies, Sharif’s film fortunes began to fade. In an interview I had with him he blamed the reversal of fortunes on the rise of young, talented directors more interested in making films about their own societies, their own worlds. “There was no more room for a foreigner, so suddenly there were no more parts.” He freely admitted that he squandered his talent in favor of quick money, spending his time drinking away the weeks in the company of O’Toole and other hell raisers. His nights were spent gambling and he made up for his losses at the roulette tables by signing on to play the “foreign gentleman” in whatever picture he could find, regardless of quality.
Though he continued to make films, they were a far cry from the level of Lawrence of Arabia or Doctor Zhivago. As the years went on, though, he became more selective about which movies. Many were television productions, such as Pleasure Palace, made for CBS in 1980, where he played a European playboy who comes to Las Vegas for a gambling showdown with a millionaire Texan. He was Russian Czar Nicholas II in Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna, a 1986 NBC production. And he played Prince Razumovsky in the A&E production of Catherine the Great, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones.
But his film choices weren’t restricted to historical costume dramas. Sharif also liked to work in comedies that intrigued him, such as his brief appearance as Cedric in the Jim Abrahams/David Zucker spy spoof, Top Secret (1984). He told me he read the script and thought it was one of the funniest things he’d ever seen. He had to be in it.
In 2003, he produced and starred in M Ibrahim (original title M Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran), a French film directed by François Dupeyron in which he played a Turkish shop-owner who befriends a Jewish teenager. It was a huge hit in France and the public came out in droves. It earned him a Cesar Award (France’s version of the Oscars) and the Audience Award at the Venice Film Festival, which he shared with Benicio Del Toro (21 Grams). In 2004, he played the wealthy Sheikh Riyadh in Hidalgo who invites American Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) to take part in the Ocean of Fire, a 3,000-mile survival race across the Arabian desert. His last released film is the French family drama Rock the Casbah (2013).
In May 2015, news broke that Sharif was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. His son, Tarek El-Sharif said his father was becoming confused when trying to remember some of the biggest films of his career, mixing up the titles and often forgetting where they were filmed.
His death came less than six months after ex-wife Hamama’s death at the same age, reportedly also from heart failure. In addition to his son, he had two grandsons, Omar (also an actor) and Karim.