Egyptian film icon talks, past, present, and the future of his career
Time Out Doha staff
Omar Sharif reminds me of my grandpa.
Except, of course, my grandfather didn’t have two Golden Globes and an Oscar nomination to his name. But, speaking to Omar Sharif, he may as well not have them either—he doesn’t know where they are anymore.
‘I don’t have them anymore. I had so many prizes, French César, Leone d’Oro from Venezia . . . I can’t travel with these things, so I left them in them in the hotels. I swear to God!’ he says. ‘I don’t have one thing, I don’t have a house. I have a very nice suitcase, a very strong one.’
Which isn’t to say he didn’t appreciate them: while speaking with him during the Doha Tribeca Film festival this year (just minutes before the now infamous slap incident, where he was caught on video pushing away an insistent fan, aiming for a photo with the film star) he stressed over and over again how lucky he was.
‘I have been the most lucky man forever. Even in health, I’m 80 now, and I am very healthy. I’m very happy. I have three grandchildren, but they’re all boys: I want a girl. And the girl is coming! I’m going to have my first granddaughter [born in January], and then when I will have her, I will stay with her all the time,’ he says. ‘I was very lucky. First of all, I was born in a family that had some money, and they sent me to the best English school. And in the schools I played in the theatre. I loved the theatre since I was young. From the age of 12 or 13 I started to act. And all my teachers were against me because I was very brilliant at mathematics and physics and things like that, I was a very good student, but I only wanted to be an actor—I didn’t want to be a genius or anything, I just wanted to be an actor.’
That’s an understatement. Marlon Brando has said that Omar Sharif was the first Egyptian superstar, and it would be impossible to have another star like him today. He’s been in over 100 movies over his half century in the cinema. After getting his start in Egyptian cinema, he broke into English cinema playing Sherif Ali in the 1962 classic, Lawrence of Arabia.
‘I was making Egyptian films. And all of a sudden, [director] David Lean, he wanted an actor for Lawrence of Arabia, and he looked at [my] photograph. And he said ‘bring this boy, if he speaks English’. So they sent me a plane, and I went to the desert in Jordan. The director was standing when the plane came down, he looked at me all around and he listened to my English and he said ‘ok’.’
He was to spend two years hanging out in the desert of Jordan, starting a lifelong bromance that would span movies and personal lives with David Lean and Peter O’Toole.
‘I’m always intimate, when I make a film I’m always intimate with everybody, even the little people who pick up the cup and anything from the floor. But my best friend in the cinema was Peter O’Toole. We were brothers. We stayed two years in the desert, sleeping in tents, and there were no girls. It was forbidden, the director said ‘I don’t want any women to come, because the film has no women at all’. I was married, and I had a child already. I wasn’t allowed to go to Egypt to see my family because they were afraid they wouldn’t let me come back and finish the film, it was still Nasser at that time [who required exit visas for citizens to leave Egypt]. And so I brought my family to London [for holiday] and it was nice.’
He joined forces with Peter O’Toole again, in The Night of the Generals in 1967.
‘I’ve done all sorts of nationalities you know. I played the German officer, alongside Peter O’Toole. He was the General and I was the Colonel, I was the Colonel against him.’
He’s also played Barbara Streisand’s flamboyant playboy husband in Funny Girl (1968) and Funny Lady (1975); a Russian Poet in Dr Zhivago (1965); Che Guevara in Che! (1969); a Mongol warrior in Genghis Khan (1965); a Turkish shop keeper in Monsieur Ibrahim (2003) and many more. But always, he was Egyptian: in fact, he was one of the first Egyptian star nominated for a major Hollywood award.
‘‘I am not American, I am not English, I have my Egyptian passport. I’ve never changed it and I’ve travelled with it. I had a lot of success for an Egyptian who was in the middle of all Americans! You must remember one thing: when I made Lawrence and all that, and they gave me this Oscar nomination, I was an Egyptian. And 90 per cent who are in cinema in Hollywood [at that time] are Jewish. And I was the only Muslim there, called Omar Sharif, and they were very nice to me! They nominated me, the people they could have said ‘no, he’s a Muslim we’re not going to do it’. If we had a Jew coming in here and he does this, we won’t put him. I’m not religious, but I admit I’ve thought about that!’
While many people assume it must have been a difficult slog for an Arab to gain acceptance in the Hollywood of the 1960s, Sharif begs to differ.
‘They treated me like a god. They really did. They didn’t think about it at all, but I was living there. I had a beautiful house in Bel-Air, under me was this singer, what was his name, tall guy, he was a very popular singer. He was under my house. I could see his swimming pool,’ he says, trailing off. ‘Now I can’t remember names of anybody, it’s extraordinary . . . Wait, Elvis Presley! Exactly. You got it! Elvis Presley, he was in the house under me and I used to look and see if he had girls or something [laughs]. It was Elvis Presley. And then he died, he died young. I was around, he left and suddenly the house was empty.’
That small lapse (and who could forget the King’s poolside frolics after all), is the only time his age shows. Of his upcoming 80th birthday, on April 10, he’s less than enthused. He’s more excited about the birth of his first granddaughter, who will be several months old by his birthday.
‘It’s another year. I don’t like birthdays. I want to forget that I’m getting older! [laughs]. I have now grandchildren, this is what is interesting when you get older. I like one of them more than the others, you know, you don’t like them all the same. But they don’t know [laughs]!’
When he says family really is everything to him, he means it. Speaking of his ex wife, Egyptian Actress Faten Hamama it’s clear his torch is still burning for her, even decades after their divorce. It’s also clear that he’s not afraid of a slightly off-colour joke, either.
‘I loved my wife. We were separated by the fact that I couldn’t go to Egypt and I stayed abroad for a long time. And I told her ‘I give you freedom if you want to get married to someone else’. And she married a wonderful guy. I’m very pleased for her. I never loved anyone [else]. I had some girlfriends, but they never stay long. They never stay more than one hour! [laughs].’
Surprisingly, considering the mark he’s left on the film industry, he says he doesn’t watch movies. Or at least, not any recently.
‘I haven’t seen movies in the last 30 years. I like the old things, the old films from when I was young. I loved all these, I think I even loved the films without speaking. Silent movies. I loved that, I loved all these films at the beginning, the black and white, very nice, better than colour I think. And the actors were so wonderful. Now there are great actors, I’m not discussing about that, but I love my old actors. More than my now young actors, that are better maybe than the others, but I like the old ones.’
And despite his prolific resume, he doesn’t turn up at festivals and other events without a good reason.
‘I don’t go to festivals unless I have a film and I’m encouraging it, or trying to make some publicity for it,’ he says, firmly batting away questions about his opinions on Doha Film Institute and the Doha Tribeca Film Festival.
‘I have no idea [what role institutes like DFI can play for film makers and actors]. I really don’t. I mean, I look after myself, I think about what I should do, and what I shouldn’t do, and that’s all. I haven’t made a film in the last three years practically, because I don’t find good things now. Anything that’s good, I will make. But I will not make any film if I don’t love it. I don’t want any more. I read the script and I see the director if he’s ok. And if I have that, I go with pleasure.’
His standards for what is good are high: not just for the film industry, but for himself.
‘You know, there are films that were not successful, and maybe they weren’t very good, but I had a little scene that was good. I don’t see the film as a whole. I see this scene was good, only. Even in films that were very successful, I hate sometimes something that I have done.’
That’s what sets him apart, more than anything else, from so many other ‘superstars’: he doesn’t actually think of himself as a star.
‘Really, I don’t even consider it. All that happened is that sometimes somebody wants an interview: ok. It doesn’t mean that I’m a great star or whatever. I never thought of that.’
Which is probably his star continues to burn so brightly.