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Omar Sharif: 'It is a great film, but I'm not very good in it'

It is 50 years since 'Lawrence of Arabia' came to the silver screen. Here, one of the two actors who achieved stardom in the film talks about the anniversary celebrations, his life spent in hotels, his love of liberty, cards, horses and women. Rachel Halliburton meets Omar Sharif

Rachel Halliburton
Sunday 18 November 2012 01:00 GMT
Omar Sharif: the Egyptian icon who conquered the world screen

The girl who came to seduce Omar Sharif in Dallas carried a small revolver with a mother-of-pearl grip. Dressed in green, as drunk as she was determined, she forced her way into his bedroom and ordered him to take his clothes off. But an essential part of his anatomy, understandably, refused to respond to the threat of a bullet. "Using her free hand," he recounted, "she sought to encourage me. In vain. As it would have been with anyone from Errol Flynn to Johnny ['Tarzan of the Apes') Weissmuller."

On Friday, the 50th anniversary restoration of Lawrence of Arabia was released on Blu-ray. And later this week, Sharif arrives in London to attend a party for the film's costume designer to be held at the V&A. It was the film that launched him as a leading actor and sex symbol – in the ensuing decades, his name would be linked to a string of women including Barbra Streisand and Anouk Aimée – yet when I recount the tale of his fan from Dallas, those famous eyes scrutinise me in mock horror, while the long fingers curl round the first whisky of the evening.

There's no doubt that it's true – it's described in detail in his autobiographical Omar Sharif's Life in Bridge. However, when we meet in the exclusive hotel in Paris where he currently lives, he exclaims: "Darling, I've slept with fewer than 10 women. I don't remember this. I hardly remember what happened last week." Does whisky help his memory at all? "We'll see." He holds his glass up cheerfully. "Let's have a go."

It's a potential game-over moment. But then the stories start to flow. Despite his protests, there's clearly an impressive resilience about the mind and, indeed, the body that first came into the world in Alexandria, Egypt, in April 1932. As an octogenarian, Sharif still possesses that lean, almost angry beauty that marked him out first as a promising Egyptian film star, and then, following his discovery by David Lean, an international screen idol.

All the attributes that were there in his youth remain: the cheekbones like ridges along cliffs, the taunting imperfection of the gap-toothed smile, those eyes whose glittering fury was captured so strikingly by Lean in the scene from Doctor Zhivago where he watches the Cossacks slaughter peaceful demonstrators. I don't need to rhapsodise about the hands, as he does so himself. "See these hands?" He holds them out in front of me. "They are old. But they are soft. Only good for caressing." He carves a suggestive curve in the air.

It takes a certain arrogance to pull off this statement at any age, and Sharif certainly isn't lacking in self‑belief. But despite skating dangerously near the dirty-old-man line, his complex mercurial personality cannot be reduced in this way. There's a mischievous flash in his eye as he says it, the spark of someone who's spent his life seeing what he can get away with. Not least in those trips that he and the Lawrence of Arabia star Peter O'Toole used to take to Beirut, in the short breaks they had once a month when filming in the Jordanian desert.

"We'd drink without stopping for 48 hours … we went hunting girls in every bar, every nightclub," he declared in The Eternal Male, his unashamedly chauvinistic Seventies autobiography. Their hard-partying lifestyle almost put a kibosh on the Hollywood premiere, when they were arrested the night before in the company of Lenny Bruce as he shot up with a hypodermic syringe. "[The producer] Sam Spiegel got us out of jail," Sharif tells me. "He arrived with six lawyers. Of course we were completely terrified."

Despite the rebelliousness and towering ego, Sharif seems extremely malleable when it comes to those he respects. Take the famous – some might say defining – moustache, which wasn't his idea at all, but David Lean's. "I was taken in a plane to the desert to meet David," he relates, "and as we came in to land we could see him sitting all by himself. We landed right next to him, but he didn't move one step. When I got off the plane, he didn't say 'hello'. He simply walked round me to see my profile. Finally, he said 'That's very good, Omar. Let's go to the make-up tent.' I tried on a moustache, and it was decided I would grow one. I've shaved it off for a couple of films, but otherwise I've had it ever since."

At some points, to hear him talk you'd think life began for Sharif only once Lean took him out of Egypt. Yet the man who was born Michael Shalhoub has always lived at the heart of the action, even in his own country. His father, a prosperous timber merchant, increased his wealth when he salvaged barbed wire left behind by the British during the Second World War in the desert, and turned it into nails. As a result, the family moved to an area in Cairo where they soon came to King Farouk's attention.

"My mother used to play cards with King Farouk," Sharif declares. "He believed she brought good luck to him – she was his mascot. He often came round to our house. I was around 10 years old at the time – if I came home and realised he was there, I would just sneak into bed. My mother used to sit up all night." He laughs. "By night she would play cards, by day she would give me the slipper. She hit me on my backside every day till I was 14. She was an extraordinary woman – she lived till 1998. I was very close to her, even though she beat me all the time!"

Certainly the love of cards, despite the beatings, has proved a central dynamic in Sharif's life. Famously, he was one of the world's top 50 bridge players – the Omar Sharif Bridge Circus played exhibition matches all over the world – and he once received a late-night invitation to play with the Shah of Iran and his wife. Does he play now? "No," he says soberly. "I stopped six years ago when I stopped being good enough." He still enjoys his other extravagance, racehorses: "Early next year, I'm taking a horse to Saigon. It's one of the best racehorses in Europe."

Following his meteoric start, the latter part of Sharif's life has been an enigma to his fans. After his marriage to the Egyptian movie star Faten Hamama collapsed during the filming of Doctor Zhivago – "She was the love of my life," he asserts – he has lived what has seemed, especially in recent years, to be a solitary, unsatisfactory existence. "From the age of 31, I have lived in hotels," he says.

He has also cheerfully acknowledged that he has made a lot of films he wasn't proud of to help finance his bridge habit. Though when I ask him which movies he is not so proud of, rather than naming something like Che! (the 1969 flop in which he played Che Guevara), he talks about Lawrence of Arabia.

"I think it is a great film, but I am not very good in it. I also never thought anyone would go to see the film – three hours and 40 minutes of desert, and no girls!" Then there's the unavoidable subject of the recent physical assaults: in 2003 he was convicted of head-butting a police officer in a Paris casino, and last year he apparently hit a female journalist at the Doha Tribeca Festival in Qatar. Of the latter incident, he declares: "I have a small remembrance of this." Of the former, he says: "I said to him 'Vous êtes un con!' They put me in jail for a whole night. It was awful."

It strikes me that Sharif is not so much lonely, as someone who wants to be at liberty to be a loner. He is a law unto himself – though he tells me happily that he's going to see his family (he has one son, and a number of grandchildren) in Cairo at the start of next year, and he's had many strong friendships throughout his life, not least with Hosni Mubarak's wife, Suzanne. "I thought it was right that Mubarak went," he says, "but I always found his wife very intelligent and interesting to talk to." He emphasises that this is a personal and not a political judgement – "I get in trouble when I talk about politics."

His refusal to be pinned down by anyone or anything is exemplified perhaps most clearly by his attitude to religion. Born a Catholic – "I used to go and make confession to the priest. I told him I masturbated. How can that be a mortal sin? Every boy masturbates" – he converted to Islam in order to get married, and technically remains a Muslim to this day. He denies rumours that he recently converted to Kabbalism, but says, "Everyone should have something to believe in. I won't say anything bad about any religion. But your life is your life," he frowns at me, belligerently. It's the most vehement he's been. Then the glare relaxes. He raises his glass and takes a sip of whisky. "All that matters is being happy."

Curriculum vitae

10 April 1932 Born in Alexandria, Egypt.

1936 The family moves to Cairo.

1954 First Egyptian movie, Siraa Fil-Waadi (The Blazing Sun). Changes name to Omar Sharif.

1955 Marries Egyptian actress Faten Hamama, his co-star in The Blazing Sun. Converts to Islam.

1957 His son Tarek is born. Tarek will go on to play the young Zhivago at the age of eight.

1962 Lawrence of Arabia is released, catapulting both him and Peter O'Toole to international stardom.

1965 Stars in Doctor Zhivago. Separates from his wife.

June 1967 Causes a scandal in Egypt when a picture of him kissing the Jewish Barbra Streisand is released just after the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War. They are filming Funny Girl, which is released the next year.

1967 Founds the "Omar Sharif Bridge Circus".

1974 Stars opposite Julie Andrews in The Tamarind Seed.

1980s Mainly appears in TV mini-series, including The Far Pavilions and Peter the Great.

2003 Receives critical acclaim again in the François Dupeyron film Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran. Wins the audience award for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival. Also receives the Golden Lion Award for Life Achievement.

2012 Celebrates 50th anniversary of Lawrence of Arabia, and Blu-ray release of restored film.

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