The Egyptian film icon celebrated his 80th birthday last week. He tells Jessica Davey-Quantick about his past, his plans for the future and living next door to Elvis
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 can’t remember where he left them.
‘I don’t have them any more,’ laughs Sharif. ‘I had so many prizes; French César, Leone d’Oro from Venezia… I can’t travel with these things, so I left them in the hotels.
I swear to God, 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 Sharif during the Doha Tribeca Film festival last year (just minutes before the now-infamous slap incident, where he was apparently caught on video pushing away an insistent fan who was angling for a photo) he stressed over and over again how lucky he was. ‘I’ve been the most lucky man forever. Even in health: I’m 80 now, and I am very healthy. I’m very happy,’ 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. All my teachers were against me because I was 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 appeared in more than 100 movies during half a century in the industry. After getting his big break in Egyptian cinema, he broke into English movies playing Sherif Ali in 1962 classic Lawrence of Arabia.
‘I was making Egyptian films and all of a sudden [director] David Lean wanted an actor for Lawrence of Arabia,’ remembers Sharif. ‘He looked at photographs 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 looked at me all around and listened to my English, and he said, “Okay.”’
He was to spend two years hanging out in the Jordanian desert, starting a life-long bromance with fellow star Peter O’Toole. ‘When I make a film I’m always intimate with everybody, even the little people who pick up the cups from the floor. But my best friend in the cinema was Peter. 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.’
Sharif joined forces with O’Toole again, in The Night of the Generals in 1967, playing a German officer. ‘I’ve done all sorts of nationalities, you know,’ he says. And he’s not wrong: he played Barbara Streisand’s flamboyant playboy husband in Funny Girl (1968) and Funny Lady (1975), a Russian poet in Dr Zhivago (1965), iconic freedom fighter Che Guevara in Che! (1969), a Mongol warrior in Genghis Khan (1965), a Turkish shop keeper in Monsieur Ibrahim… (2003) and more. But he always stayed true to his Egyptian roots: in fact, he was one of the first Egyptian stars to be nominated for a major Hollywood award. And he’s fiercely proud of that fact.
‘I’m not American, I’m 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 of those in Hollywood [at that time] were Jewish. And I was the only Muslim there, called Omar Sharif, and they were very nice to me! They nominated me – they could have said, “No, he’s a Muslim, we’re not going to do it.”’
While many people assume it must have been a difficult slog to gain acceptance in the Hollywood of the ’60s, Sharif begs to differ. ‘They treated me like a god. They really did. I had a beautiful house in Bel Air. Living underneath 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… Wait: Elvis Presley, that’s it. Exactly. You got it! He was in the house under me and I used to look to see if he had girls or something. [Laughs] And then he died, he died young. I was around, he left and suddenly the house was empty.’
That small lapse is the only time Sharif’s age shows. Yet of his 80th birthday, celebrated on Tuesday April 10, he’s less than enthused. ‘It’s another year. I don’t like birthdays. I want to forget that I’m getting older,’ he laughs. When the conversation turns to his ex-wife, Egyptian actress Faten Hamama, he admits 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]
While not entirely retired (Sharif was last seen on screen in 2009 French drama I Forgot to See You), he’s understandably picky about any new roles that land on his desk.
‘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 practically the past three years, because I don’t find good things now. Anything that’s good, I will make.
But I won’t make a film if I don’t love it. I don’t want that any more. I read the script and I see the director, if he’s okay. 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. Even in films that were very successful, sometimes I hate 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 happens is that sometimes somebody wants an interview. It doesn’t mean that I’m a great star or whatever. I never thought of that.’
Eager for some Omar?
Catch up on some classics with these Sharif movies…
Dr Zhivago (1965) This epic romantic drama is the eighth highest-grossing film of all time in the US. It tells the story of physician Yuri Zhivago (played by Sharif) and his struggle to survive during the 1917 Russian revolution. Sharif’s son, Tarek, appeared in the film as an eight-year-old Yuri.
Mr Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Qur’an (2003) A Parisian tale documenting the friendship between a young Jewish boy and Ibrahim, who runs a store across the street. Sharif received several awards for his portrayal of Ibrahim, including a Best Actor award at Venice Film Festival.
One Night with the King (2006) Sharif’s later work includes this dramatisation of the Biblical story of Esther, who risked her life to plead with the King to save the Jewish people. Panned by critics, the film was still endorsed by the American Bible Society. All available at Virgin Megastore, Bahrain City Centre (17 172 300).