Omar Sharif: Hits and misses

The gambling became so compulsive he needed to make bad movies just to pay off his debts
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The Independent Online

Omar Sharif hasn't had a hit in years. Unless, of course, you count the time he headbutted a police officer in a casino in the Parisian suburbs in 2003, for which he received a £1,000 fine and a suspended sentence. "It made me the hero of the whole of France," he later said, less than apologetically. "To headbutt a cop is the dream of every Frenchman."

Or the time, a year later, he whacked his fellow actor John Noble with a lamp while on location in India for a barely noticed biblical movie called One Night with the King. ("We were drunk," Sharif later explained.)

Or, going back a bit further to 1985, the time he knocked Ian Dury out cold on the floor of Le Caprice in London. (Both men were still furious about the fight when, four years later, they wound up in the cast of the same film, an obscure Polish production called The Rainbow Thief.)

Most recently, the Omar Sharif hit most in the news has been a punch to the nose he allegedly delivered to a parking valet outside a Beverly Hills restaurant in 2005. According to the prosecution in this week's quick-fire trial, Sharif - accompanied by an unidentified female - was intoxicated and became enraged after the valet at Mastro's Steakhouse, one Juan Anderson, refused to accept a €20 note as payment for parking the actor's four-wheel-drive Porsche.

In retaliation, the prosecution alleged, Sharif called Anderson a "stupid Mexican" (he is in fact of Guatemalan descent) and broke his nose. Sharif chose not to fly to Los Angeles to defend himself - he has been in his native Egypt of late - preferring to plead no contest and accept a sentence of probation plus mandatory anger management therapy. He is also likely to have to pay restitution to the valet for the broken nose, something the judge will decide at a sentencing hearing scheduled for April.

All this is, of course, more than a touch undignified for a one-time matinee idol Egyptian actor on the cusp of his 75th birthday. Back in the 1960s, Sharif wowed Western audiences with his performances in Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago and developed a reputation as an international playboy who could reliably play the foreigner - preferably swarthy and sexy, though not necessarily - in any given movie production.

In his heyday, Sharif was something truly remarkable - perhaps the only Egyptian, if not the only Arab, ever to hit the Hollywood big time. The job offers flooded in, as did the marriage proposals, as many as 1,000 of them a week, according to legend.

But then it all went wrong. A string of flops in the late 1960s and early 1970s - all for eminent directors such as John Frankenheimer, Sidney Lumet and Francesco Rosi - knocked him off the A list. Soon he was scrounging for any job he could lay his hands on. As he told a Time magazine reporter, with typical flamboyance, in 2003: "Darling, I was making for the last 25 years rubbish movies. I couldn't stand myself any more!"

For a long time, it wasn't clear if Sharif had given up acting, or if the movies he was in were just so God-awful nobody was going to see them. He developed a second career as a bridge columnist, and parlayed his fondness for contract bridge into a general fascination with card games and gambling. As he once put it: "I'd rather be playing bridge than making a bad movie."

The problem was, the gambling became so compulsive that he needed to make the bad movies anyway, just to pay off his debts. For years, he took up semi-permanent residence at the Royal Monceau hotel in Paris, just a stone's throw from the Arc de Triomphe, where one of the bar stools was always reserved just for him and the staff unfailingly mixed him his favourite cocktails through good times and bad.

The cycle of his life did not make him happy, as he admitted with admirable frankness in a 2005 interview with an Australian newspaper. "When I'm making a bad film, I get so depressed I make it even worse. I don't even try to save it with my performance," he told the Canberra Times. Dissatisfaction with his acting then makes him all the more prone to the lure of gambling. "It's a chicken-and-egg thing," he said. "Gambling became a thing because I was bored. I never liked it."

He has, to his credit, tried to have his moments of rebirth. The 2003 French film Monsieur Ibrahim, in which he played an ageing Turkish Muslim befriending a young French Jew against the backdrop of the Swinging Sixties, won him the best actor award at the Venice film festival and a César, the French equivalent of an Oscar. He followed that up with a meaty role in Hidalgo, the Arabian horse-racing drama starring Viggo Mortensen, which through no fault of his got savaged by the critics for historical inauthenticity and fared indifferently at the box office.

Perhaps more notable than these efforts, though, is Sharif's ability to talk with a humour and charm that make it remarkably easy to forgive his angry outbursts and his tendency to adolescent posturing. "A person like me who has an accent," he once said of himself, "is difficult to cast in normal films, because I'm a foreigner in every film industry. At the beginning when I was a box-office star, it didn't matter. I played a German. Can you believe an Egyptian playing a German? Hitler turns in his grave at this!"

Despite his unmistakably Islamic name, Sharif was born a Catholic, of mostly Lebanese descent, with the name Michel Shalhoub. A solidly middle-class existence beckoned: his father ran a lumber business, and he was set to follow in his footsteps. But then his easy good looks and love of acting set him on a different path, as a heart-throb actor.

In his very first film at the age of 19, he starred opposite Faten Hamama, and fell in love with her so deeply he converted to Islam and changed his name. They were married for 19 years. By the time Sam Spiegel, the producer of Lawrence of Arabia, came looking for an actor to play the tribal leader Sherif Ali, Sharif was established as the undisputed leading man of the Egyptian cinema. It was his good fortune that he also spoke English - earning himself a screen test with Anthony Quinn in the desert, and the part of a lifetime. As Sharif later recounted it: "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... I came to this Sodom and Gomorrah - that was what Hollywood was in those days."

Politically, Sharif's rise to fame was awkward since Egypt was run at the time by the Arab nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was deeply suspicious of the United States. Sharif also worried he could get into trouble for working with Jews in Hollywood, so he took his entire family out of Egypt and set them up in Spain instead - which is where much of his next hit, Doctor Zhivago, took place.

His concern was entirely warranted. After he starred opposite Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, all his films were banned in Egypt on the grounds that he had allowed himself to be depicted making love to a Jew. He didn't go back to Egypt until the mid-1970s, when he struck up a friendship with Egypt's new president, Anwar Sadat, over dinner at the White House. Sadat told him: "You are our son, this is your country. You have to come back... Come back with me or I will never speak to you again."

Sharif's character in Funny Girl was a card-shark, a role not too far removed from his real-life passion for the bridge table. He was taken seriously enough in professional bridge circles to be invited to fill in for the Chicago Tribune's bridge columnist Charles Goren when he fell gravely ill in the early 1970s. As Sharif recounted: "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."

Sharif almost died himself in the early 1990s, when his habit of smoking as many as five packs of cigarettes a day caught up with him and he suffered a mild heart attack. He consulted his fellow Egyptian, Magdi Yacoub, at Harefield Hospital, and underwent heart-bypass surgery almost immediately. He has since stopped smoking altogether, and devoted considerable energies to fundraising for Yacoub's international charity, Chain of Hope.

Over the years, he has given up many of his habits and passions. A bad back forced him to cut back on horse-riding. Existential angst convinced him to give up gambling - or so he reported as recently as last year. Since his divorce in 1974 he says he has never lived with another woman, preferring to keep to himself and focus on his grandchildren. He has even given up bridge.

"I've stopped altogether," he said in 2006. "I decided I didn't want to be a slave to any passion any more except for my work. I had too many passions, bridge, horses, gambling. I want to live a different kind of life, be with my family more because I didn't give them enough time."

His son Tarek has been married to both a Muslim and a Jew, so the greater Sharif family offers some beacon of hope for inter-faith understanding in the Middle East - a cause Sharif himself has taken up enthusiastically over the years. Unesco once gave him a medal for promoting cultural diversity - ironic, perhaps, in the light of the racial slurs he allegedly uttered in that Beverly Hills car park.

Then again, Sharif himself would never claim to be anything less than a flawed character. As he approaches 75, he hasn't given up on charming us still.

A Life in Brief

BORN Michel Demitri Shalhoub, in Alexandria on 10 April 1932.

EDUCATION Victoria College, Cairo.

FAMILY Married the Egyptian actress Faten Hamama in 1955 and they had one son, Tarek. They divorced in 1974. He has never remarried.

CAREER After almost a decade as Egypt's leading man in such films as Sira' Fi al-Wadi (Struggle in the Valley, 1953), he was cast in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Lean cast him again as Doctor Zhivago, opposite Julie Christie.

Funny Girl (1968) was his last big hit, although he won critics' hearts in the small French movie Monsieur Ibrahim (2003).

HE SAYS "When you are young, you think that when you get older you will be more wise and more patient, and the truth is just the opposite. You don't gain wisdom with age; you lose it."

THEY SAY "I saw this beautiful man with dark hair and whiskers, and they said he was Omar Sharif. I said 'no one in the world is called that', so he became 'Fred'." - Peter O'Toole, Sharif's co-star in Lawrence of Arabia