“If I could obliterate the past, I wouldn’t … I think the word ‘regret’ is stupid. It’s an absurd word — this regret.”
By Glenn Lovell
Omar Sharif – the Egyptian actor with the dark, deep-set eyes and smoldering Valentino looks who appeared opposite Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence and Barbra Streisand’s Fanny Brice – died today in Cairo of a heart attack. He was 83.
At his peak, in the 1960s, the international star supped with Hollywood royalty, boasted more than one Beverly Hills address, and landed the much-coveted lead in David Lean’s epic soap opera “Doctor Zhivago.”
In March 2004, I sat down with Sharif in a San Francisco hotel suite to discuss his roller-coaster career, from the seemingly overnight success as Arab leader Sherif Ali (in “Lawrence”) to a then-nomadic existence as perennial party guest and professional gambler. In keeping with his reputation, he proved a most congenial host, gracious and refreshingly candid, even when it came to enumerating his many career gaffes.
Following close on the heels of an Oscar nomination (for “Lawrence”) and Golden Globe wins (for “Lawrence” and “Doctor Zhivago”), he received some very bad career advice — “my own!” he laughed — and segued from one stinker to another. Indeed, he did five back-to-back duds, including ”Che!” and ”MacKenna’s Gold,” and was sentenced to what he called 30 years of “terrible, horrible, ridiculous films. Not one decent film in 30 years! Or one decent part!”
At first content to just take the money and live the life of international bon vivant-gambler in Paris and Monte Carlo, Sharif finally said, “Enough!” The turning point came when his grandchildren began making fun of his movies. “So I decided not to do these things anymore, to wait until something good came up. And if nothing good came up, I decided I wouldn’t work again.”
Sharif’s self-imposed exile lasted five years — until 2003, when he received the script for “Monsieur Ibrahim,” a French coming-of-age story with a strong brotherhood message. Sharif, then 71, played the title character, a grizzled Muslim shopkeeper who tutors and eventually adopts an orphaned Jewish boy (Pierre Boulanger) in ’60s Paris.
The actor who couldn’t find good work for so long also appeared that year in Disney’s “Hidalgo.” His role? Sherif Ali’s grandfather, he replied with a booming laugh — “an old Arab prince” whose daughter takes a shine to star Viggo Mortensen.
In the wings — but, sadly, not meant to be — was a sci-fi’er called “Cyber Meltdown,” loosely based on the Gilgamesh legend. It would have reunited him with good friend O’Toole.
“I have beautiful dialogue in ‘Hidalgo’ — it’s really the second part in the film,” said Sharif, in San Francisco after receiving lifetime-achievement salutes from the Venice Film Festival and the American Film Institute. “But it was the ‘Monsieur Ibrahim’ script which brought me back. I thought it was time for me, a respected and loved person in the Middle East, to make this statement that it is possible for us to live together and love each other.”
Sharif was known for his very public brawls. At the time he was on the cover of a number of tabloids for head-butting a casino security guard. He said, without a hint of sarcasm, that he was alarmed by the amount of hostility in the world. “The rage of hatred is amazing,” he observed, stirring a cup of tea.
”The world has become a violent place, and the cinema reflects the world. I think this violence stems from the fact that making a living, feeding your belly, is getting to be more and more difficult. Everybody’s in a struggle, a race with the other guy.”
The boy in “Monsieur Ibrahim” is initiated into sex by neighborhood prostitutes, who couldn’t be more loving or romanticized. Such stereotypes didn’t bother Sharif. ”I had the same experience the boy has,” he volunteered. ”My first sex was with a prostitute in Pigalle. I was 15, like the boy in the film. But I was not as bold as him. I was shaking.”
Sharif said he identified with the philosophical Ibrahim. He liked to party and hold court — he had a permanent stool in a hotel bar in Paris — but, he was quick to add, “I never overdo it … now.”
A world-class bridge player and a legendary raconteur who had supped with Hollywood royalty as well as the real thing, he was invited to all the best functions.
“I enjoy conversation — I don’t know how to lie,” the actor said, winking. “I like people. I was born in a country which has monuments and stones. I don’t need to look at stones and monuments anymore. I need to know people and talk to them.
“I’ve always been very welcome in this country. Which is amazing because when I first came here I was an Egyptian from ‘Nasser-land,’ and Nasser was a big enemy of the Jew.”
Even more amazing, he was cast as Jewish gambler Nicky Arnstein in William Wyler’s “Funny Girl,” starring a then-25-year-old Streisand as Brice. “I made ‘Funny Girl’ during the Six Day War between Israel and Egypt — with my Egyptian passport.”
Needless to say, ”Funny Girl” didn’t play in Sharif’s homeland. Nor did “Doctor Zhivago,” because Egypt and Russia were allies and the movie was based on political dissident Boris Pasternak’s novel.
Returning to his Hollywood contract days, Sharif flashed that famous gap-toothed smile and continued, ”At first the idea of my playing Arnstein was a big joke. But then Wyler said, ‘Why not Sharif?’ and everybody was stunned. . . . I had a ball on ‘Funny Girl.’ It’s probably the film I enjoyed making most. It was the first time I wore proper clothes, instead of Arab robes or running around in the snow.”
But it was the films for Lean — ”Lawrence of Arabia” and ”Doctor Zhivago” — that strangers asked about. ”Lean was a big influence on my life. I spent five years with him. Lean was a perfectionist, and I was a great admirer. I was like his son. . . . People ask, ‘Isn’t it disappointing that you’ll never top ”Lawrence,” one of the great films of all time?’ I respond, ‘It is better to do one good thing than to do nothing.’ ”
Even in his 70s, Sharif was a presence to be reckoned with. Why couldn’t he find strong character parts? He would, for instance, have made a great villain in a James Bond thriller.
”What character part? What nationality?” he demanded. ”It’s got to be something Middle Eastern or Oriental. If they need an old American actor, they can get an old American actor. I’m not a box-office draw. Hiring me does not make people go to the cinema. I’m an addition to the stars, but I don’t sell the picture.”
Sharif blamed his under-utilization on his accent, which, because of his early education at French and English schools, has always been an indefinable amalgam.
”I am the only foreign actor in the world who is foreign to every place,” he said with a laugh. ”When you’re young and a box-office draw, they make concessions and cast you in the weirdest things. I played a German officer in ‘Night of the Generals.’ I played Archduke Rudolph of Austria in ‘Mayerling.’ I played Genghis Khan.”
And, of course, he played the morose but charismatic Sherif Ali in ”Lawrence of Arabia.” (Horst Buchholz, under contract to Billy Wilder at the time, was Lean’s first choice for the role.) Ali’s introduction — as first a shimmering mirage, then a slowly growing figure on horseback — qualifies as one of the greatest entrances in screen history.
”When they told me, ‘Come up and be tested in the desert,’ I went. Remember, I was already a star. I had made 25 films in Egypt. I was married. I had a beautiful home. I had a child and was planning more.
”I often wonder if it was a good thing or bad thing that I made ‘Lawrence.’ I wonder if my life would not have been happier had I stayed in Egypt. . . .”
At this, Sharif caught himself. Such ruminations ran counter to his reputation as a vagabond-like citizen of the world.
”If I could obliterate the past, I wouldn’t,” he said. ”I think the word ‘regret’ is stupid. At 71, do I regret decisions I made when I was 30, when I may have refused a film because I had a toothache? I was a different person under different circumstances. It’s an absurd word — this regret.”
Glenn Lovell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org