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A long time in the desert

Omar Sharif has made many 'trashy, idiotic films,' but he hopes 'Monsieur Ibrahim' will restore his luster.

November 02, 2003|David Gritten | Special to The Times

London — Omar SHARIF has been a screen actor for 50 years. Yet he is not one to mouth platitudes about this remarkable career achievement, which encompasses some 90 movies. In fact, few actors are more candid about their body of work. "I went 25 years without making a good film," he insists; on thinking back, he concludes it's nearer 30.

Strolling elegantly through a hotel lobby here, he virtually stops conversation; guests sipping drinks do sudden double-takes, pointedly nudging one another and gesturing toward him with their eyes. At 71, Sharif retains all his considerable presence.

That mane of jet-black hair is steel-gray now and swept back from his brow. He wears round spectacles and a week's growth of thick stubble. Yet this is recognizably the man who was one of the big screen's leading heartthrobs, especially when he breaks into his trademark gap-toothed smile.

"The fans who come up and talk to me these days are either older people with fond memories or young people whose grandmothers or mothers love me," he reflects. "That's moving. It's good to be remembered."

He'll be remembered next week in Los Angeles with a tribute at AFI Fest 2003, where the audience will get to see him in a small, well-regarded French film, "Monsieur Ibrahim." But even without these reminders, Sharif retains his hold on film fans. How could he not? In the 1960s, Egyptian-born Sharif was in three unforgettable starring roles: as T.E. Lawrence's friend, the Bedouin prince Sherif Ali, in David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia"; as the charismatic Russian poet-doctor wooing Julie Christie's Lara in the title role of "Doctor Zhivago"; and as the wayward, irresistibly attractive cad Nicky Arnstein, breaking Barbra Streisand's heart in "Funny Girl."

Women went weak-kneed at the sight of him; soon after "Doctor Zhivago" opened, he reportedly received 3,000 proposals of marriage. Critic Pauline Kael memorably called him "a walking love scene." Back then, Sharif was tagged the most famous Egyptian since Cleopatra. "It's true when people recognize me these days, those three films are the ones they talk about," he concedes. "But it doesn't bother me. It's better than having done none they remember. I find it endearing."

He admits his subsequent movies never matched the splendor of those three hits. This was partly bad luck: "What killed my career was appearing in a succession of films you wouldn't turn down," he recalls ruefully. "They were by good directors, but they were bad films." He reels some of them off: Fred Zinnemann's "Behold a Pale Horse," John Frankenheimer's "The Horsemen," Sidney Lumet's "The Appointment."

It didn't help that in those less enlightened days, the exotic Sharif was too often cast as an all-purpose foreigner. He was a Yugoslav in "The Yellow Rolls-Royce," a Mexican in "McKenna's Gold," an Austrian in "Mayerling," a Greek in "The Break-in" and a German in "The Last Valley" and "The Night of the Generals." (In the latter film, his hair was streaked blond.) But Sharif concedes he also signed up for several films that even in advance looked rotten. "It was partly my fault," he says, sighing. "I lost money on gambling, buying horses, things like that. So I made those movies which I knew were rubbish."

Gambling and romance

Craps and roulette have long exerted a dangerous fascination for him. In 1975, he was forced to sell his lavish bachelor pad in Paris to pay gambling debts. Tales of his extravagance abound. On one day in Deauville, he lost the equivalent of $200,000 on horses and cards. "That's why I was in so many trashy, idiotic films," he says wearily. "I'd call my agent and tell him to accept any part, just to bail myself out."

He always liked cards, even if money was not involved. Early on, he was so bored between scenes on film sets that he taught himself bridge, gradually improving to become one of the world's best players. "My form of gambling now is owning horses," he muses. "I have shares in 10, and I own two outright. They race, they don't win much, but the young ones keep coming through. There's hope eternal when you own horses."

Romance was his other Achilles' heel. Sharif was no stranger to women, and in his younger days he often became entangled with his leading ladies. But none came to anything. Instead he slipped into the role of international playboy and jet-setter, never establishing roots. "I had no base," he reflects. "Contrary to all other actors in the world, I was the only foreigner in every single cinema industry -- French, Italian, English or American. I was the outsider." He moved nomadically from one film set to another, trading on his exotic good looks and deep reserves of charm.

Both have stayed with him. At the Venice Film festival this year, he received a Golden Lion award for his career. On Nov. 11 at the ArcLight Cinemas, Sharif will receive the AFI Fest Tribute for his career's work, followed Nov. 12-13 by a retrospective of four of his films at the Skirball Cultural Center.

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