How we met: Omar Sharif & Magdi Yacoub

Interviews,Victoria Greenhalgh
Sunday 19 December 1999 01:02 GMT

The actor and world-class bridge player Omar Sharif, 67, was born in Egypt. He came to fame in 1962, in `Lawrence of Arabia', which was soon followed by another leading role, in `Dr Zhivago'. His most recent film, `The 13th Warrior', was released earlier this year. In 1993 he had a heart bypass operation, which was performed by Magdi Yacoub. Separated with one son, he lives alone in Paris and Cairo

Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub, 64, was born in Egypt and trained as a surgeon there. He moved to England in 1962, and is now a heart surgeon at the Harefield and Brompton hospitals. In 1995 he founded Chain of Hope, a charity that enables children in developing countries to receive heart operations. He has been married for more than 30 years, and has three children. He and his wife live in London

OMAR SHARIF: I met Magdi Yacoub in 1993, when I had a heart complaint and flew from Paris to have a consultation. I arrived at Harefield in the evening and after he had examined me, he calmly said, "I've got a few hours free, so I can do you now if you want." I asked him if he was telling me that he was going to do a heart bypass there and then, and he nodded. I was just in from Heathrow, and the next thing I knew they'd shaved my body and taken me to the operating theatre. Magdi gave me no time at all to get frightened, which was a good thing. There I was - over 60, having smoked like an idiot throughout my life, and pursuing a lifestyle that wasn't always the best.

After the bypass I stayed for 11 days in the hospital and that is when we realised how well we got on. For a start, we are Egyptian, and when you come from a place like Egypt, the whole country loves you if you get famous. When I kissed Sophia Loren, they all think they kissed Sophia Loren too. When Magdi was knighted, the Egyptians were kneeling next to him.

Magdi and I found we had more in common than just a shared heritage. We have gone down very different paths in life, but our views on the world are similar. I have a great admiration for him. He's single-minded about his work, whereas I'm so lazy I'm almost ashamed. I went into acting because it involved long periods of unemployment. But Magdi is as selfless and dedicated to helping others as Mother Theresa was. When he was a young doctor he used to watch older surgeons work and experiment with their ideas later. He believes that everything can be improved upon and that is why he is the top heart surgeon in the world. A successful actor needs good luck, but a doctor needs skill. The speed with which Magdi works amazes me. Imagine the delicacy of operating on the heart of a newborn baby.

Meeting up with Magdi is not always easy, as he is usually working or travelling. The best way is through my involvement with his charity, the Chain of Hope, which enables children in developing countries to receive heart operations. I felt very honoured to be asked to be a Patron. My granddaughter died when she was just two months old, and this spurred me on to ensure that children get the best medical help available. I help raise money, and attend almost all the functions. I often have dinner with Magdi and his family afterwards - if he's not called away to an operation, that is.

It's funny how life turns out, and how my illness helped me gain such a wonderful friendship with a man whom ordinarily I would never have met. My life is very different now - I have to be more careful. These days I am dedicated to my family and my private life.

I am glad that Magdi and I have continued our friendship. When it comes to gambling I've never been lucky, but I was lucky in life, which perhaps shows better fortune. Magdi Yacoub, on the other hand, was blessed with dedication and skill.

MAGDI YACOUB: Omar and I were brought together in 1993 when I diagnosed that he needed a heart bypass and operated on him. Despite the tone of our first meeting, he came across as a very down-to-earth man with a charming sense of humour.

It was during his hospital stay that I got to know him. Not only are we both Egyptian, but we found that we shared many views on life. I had always admired him as an actor, especially in Dr Zhivago, but I was half expecting him to be a distant, film-star type. I was very surprised to find him so unaffected and very similar to his charismatic film roles. It is strange when you meet somebody and suddenly identify with them, but that's what happened between us. We can speak about anything, and we really do think alike on certain issues.

Omar showed a fascination for the Chain of Hope. Like me, he loves children and the charity touched his sentimental side. This year he became a Patron. As someone removed from the medical profession, he brings a fresh outlook to the charity. All our operations are carried out in our spare time and reliant on goodwill, so fundraising and support are vital. Omar never fails to turn up to the functions. We have had many high-profile people associated with the charity, including Princess Diana, who would come to the hospital early in the morning to visit recovering patients. It requires dedication to show continued support, and, like Diana, Omar has these qualities in abundance.

Omar jokes that the only way he can see me these days is at the charity functions, which is partly true. He'll fly over here for the event and then we'll try to spend some time together at my house afterwards. My wife, Marianne, is always pleased to see him - she is a bridge fanatic and they always have lots to discuss.

As a heart surgeon I am on constant call and when not researching or giving lectures I like to be with my family. This means that my good friends have to be very adaptable too, and Omar is that kind of person. As I can be needed at operations at any time of day, we could be having a meal and halfway through I get a call and he says, "Here we go again."

Omar claims he's lazy and became an actor so he didn't have to work, but that's just his modesty speaking. If you look beyond the charm you see a perfectionist who uses as much precision in his acting as I do in operating. His wild side is more latent these days. Apparently he used to smoke 100 cigarettes a day, and there's no doubt that side still exists in him, but he keeps it toned down for the sake of his health.

Omar and I end up talking about all sorts of things, and whenever we have the time to chat, we attempt to put the world to rights. We have very different roles to play in life, but we share an outlook that links us.

`The Lifesaver', a documentary about Magdi Yacoub, will be shown this Thursday at 10pm on ITV. For information on the Chain of Hope call 0171 351 1978

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