Omar Sharif will not go quietly. A month before I met the 72-year-old actor at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, he got into a shouting match with a croupier in a French casino. The man likes to gamble. But he says he only gambles when there is no one around to have dinner with, when he gets lonely. He lives by himself in a Paris hotel, where he says everything is done for him; it's much nicer. Plus, the bar downstairs keeps a stool no one else is allowed to occupy.
At the time of the casino altercation last August, he was in the process of losing 21,400 pounds sterling (about $39,700 at yesterday's exchange rate) in a high-stakes game of roulette when the argument grew heated. The police arrived. And Sharif head-butted an officer. He was arrested and received a fine and a one-month suspended sentence. He was 71 at the time - and living proof that a celebrity is never too old to pitch a fit.
In conversation, Sharif suggests none of this. Except there's that mischievous twinkle that never dims in his large watery eyes, orbs popped so forward in their sockets you wonder if they'll slide out of his head. "It doesn't matter I'm known in Japan, in China, in Toronto," he says. "On the other hand, because I am, I would be upset if I came into a town and was not known at all. Then I would go crazy, I think."
In the 1960s Sharif, born in Egypt and of Lebanese and Syrian descent, was an international man of mystery. After co-starring as a tribal leader in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, then headlining the director's Dr. Zhivago, he became the Hollywood ideal of dark, handsome, serious, and exotic. And his name became as synonymous with a certain wind-swept, studio-made brand of Oscar-winning epic as Lean's.
The odd thing is, despite decades of obscurity and bad movies, then a self-imposed exile from acting, that name continues to suggest austerity and dignity and the exotic. Perhaps because it's such a great name.
Sharif regrets a lot of the career choices he's made. He says maybe he shouldn't have turned down all those roles in the past just because the film's production conflicted with a bridge tournament. (He's a well-known world-class player, but says he's given it up.) So in the past year he's shown signs of cashing in his legend for tonier, smarter chips. Last winter he returned to the desert, and incredibly to action roles, when he fought alongside Viggo Mortensen in Hidalgo, lending that pretty piffle at least one of the trappings of an epic.
His finest work in decades is found in the title role of Monsieur Ibrahim (Columbia, $29.95), just released on video.
Here's a chunk of our chat:
What role do you think you'll be known for eventually?
You know I didn't know what I'm known for now. I was first an Arab on a camel in the desert. Then I was a Russian poet. Then I was a Jew in Funny Girl, a New York Jew no less, with Barbara Streisand. Then I was a marked colonel in The Night of the Generals. That was with Peter [O'Toole] for the second time. I was the Archduke of Austria. I've been Genghis Khan. I don't have a natural part. I played a Yugoslav with Ingrid Bergman in The Yellow Rolls-Royce. I did quite a variety. Except they were early on. After that, when my films started not doing well, my box office value went down, I couldn't find parts. I have to wait for things that fit me. So I would do all sorts of silly movies just to make money and survive.
How did you land Lawrence of Arabia, your breakout film?
The only reason I was hired was they couldn't find anyone else suitable for the part. They hired another actor to play the part. He was signed but David didn't think he'd be suitable because he didn't have the right color eyes. He wanted someone who looked really Arab. One day, [producer] Sam Spiegel arrived in Egypt. He had seen me in some Egyptian film. I was an Egyptian film star, the biggest. But he didn't know if I spoke English. He just wanted to check. When he found out that I did, he took me to the desert to do a screen test without telling me for what part he was thinking of. I did the screen test with Anthony Quinn playing my part and myself doing his part. They sent the test to the studio. I was chosen. That's how it happened.
How you became a star, too.
Yes, in America. That's my heyday. I became famous in 1962. I was nominated for an Oscar. I got two Golden Globe Awards. I became famous. It was the most incredible destiny I could have imagined. I met the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Discotheques were starting. Women's lib was starting and all the girls took their bras off, which was a cultural shock for me coming from Cairo, where you could not see a thing. You didn't kiss in public, you couldn't even hold hands. Then I came to this Sodom and Gomorrah. That was what Hollywood was in those days.
What happened to your family during this time?
I took my family out of the Middle East. I signed a seven-year contract with Columbia Pictures. I was making not a lot of money, only 8,000 [pounds] per picture, but I was also working with many Jewish people and I became worried the regime in Egypt at the time, the [Gamal Abdel] Nasser regime, would take it out on my parents, who were Catholics. So I took them out of Egypt and settled them in Spain. When we shot Dr. Zhivago in Spain, they would come for the entire day and watch me on the set.
You didn't go back to Egypt for many years after, correct?
I exiled myself from Egypt for 13 years, while Nasser was in power. It was Anwar Sadat who brought me back. I met him at dinner at the White House. He hugged me and begged me and said "You are our son, this is your country. You have to come back. Come back with me for the wedding of my son. Come back with me or I will never speak to you again." That's how I went back.
Do you still go to movies?
No. Well, I go once a year. I choose very carefully, one I'm sure I love, and I always love it.
What's the last one?
Billy Elliott. I loved it.
Until I started working at a newspaper, I never knew you wrote a bridge column.
I was associated with that column for many years. I know bridge is always associated more with Florida ladies with blue hair who have been divorced many times and widowed many more times. But I came to it because of Charles Goren, a great name in bridge. He was very ill. He had a terminal disease. They said to me, "Look, Charles is going to die soon. We want to start saying the column is by Charles and Omar. We will use you, but we won't pay you a penny until Charles dies." I said OK. Charles lived on for 20 more years. For 20 years, my name was on that column and I didn't get a penny from it.
Are you still offered many roles to this day?
Well, rubbish stuff. And I'd been doing rubbish stuff. It's undignified. You always know when it's rubbish. Sometimes you pick a picture that you think is good and it turns out to be rubbish. That happens. But the rubbish that you know will be rubbish - it never turns out to be good.
Omar Sharif is offered junk.
Because there are no parts for me. Because I am the only actor in the world who is foreign to all occidental filmmaking countries. In other words, I don't have an accent that is Italian. It's not American, it's not English, it's not Spanish. It's not even Mexican. So it's very difficult to find parts for me at this age. When I was younger and had my box office hour, they used to adopt roles or write roles just for me. Now I'm old. If they need an old Italian, they hire an old Italian. If they need an old American, they hire one of many old American actors. I have to wait for old Arab roles. And if they cast someone else as an old Arab, then I shall kill them all! (He laughs.) That is what belongs to me now. No, for 25 years I haven't found parts.
You worked, though.
Yes, but I was doing rubbish, quite honestly, and I wanted to have some dignity left. So the last four years I haven't worked at all. I decided not to work unless something good came along. Fortunately I got this script for Monsieur Ibrahim. The boy in the film is a Jew because the author is a Jew. The writer transformed memories of his grandfather into the Muslim grocer I play. The things I say in the movie are what his grandfather told him. The main problem in the script when I read it was that their coming together, their learning to appreciate each other, happened too slow. I worked hard not to make it repetitive. But it was simple acting. The child is always somber, I am always full of wisdom. I tried to make it a bit funny, I tried to make the child smile, to teach him about valuing happiness.
Do you remember why you began acting in the first place?
Yes. I remember clearly. We had a theater in my school. I did my first school play when I was 13 and that was it: I knew there was nothing else I would do in my life except act. It was in Cairo at an English school. We were a colony at that time, under the British empire like you guys, you Americans. We had very good English schools. But after that one attempt I wanted only to act. I was brilliant in my studies, too. So my teachers were desperate that I wanted to be an actor rather than a mathematician or a scientist. I was too far gone.
I remember reading somewhere you were overweight as a child.
Oh, yes. That's funny. That's true. I got fat at 11. At that time I was going to a religious French school. My mother wanted me to be beautiful and gorgeous. She wanted to get thin. She figured out that it was the English who made the worst food. This is very smart. She put me in an English boarding school and I learned English and I became thin. Otherwise I wouldn't have made Lawrence of Arabia. I wouldn't be here talking to you. All if I hadn't gotten fat at 11!
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org