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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

"I'm being given all these nonposthumous honors because it's my 50th year in film," he says dryly. "Best to receive them before you die, I think."

A general name change

He was born Michael Chalhoub in Alexandria. Raised a Catholic, he came from a high-born family; his father was a rich timber merchant and his mother a friend of Egypt's King Farouk (with whom, tellingly, she often played cards). At 21, he married actress Fatem Hamama, became a Muslim and changed his name to Omar Sharif, which he felt would be easier for the Western world to pronounce. (Omar was after Gen. Omar Bradley; "Sharif," he thought, sounded like "sheriff.")

That same year he became a star in Egypt, being plucked from obscurity to play the lead in a drama, "The Blazing Sun." He had made a dozen more films in Cairo by 1960, when American producer Sam Spiegel sought him for the role in "Lawrence of Arabia" that would change his life. Originally a light-eyed actor was signed to play Sherif Ali, and director David Lean realized his mistake.

Sharif, who had no lawyer or agent, signed a seven-year contract with Columbia for $50,000 a film, up to and including "Funny Girl." It seemed a lot of money but was far below the rate for American or British stars. "It was a terrible deal," he says now.

But nothing lessened his impact; he literally rode to global stardom on a camel. Ali is first seen in "Lawrence" as a tiny dot on a desert horizon that shimmers in the heat; he gradually becomes more distinct as he nears the camera. It's among the longest, most suspenseful shots in film history.

He and Fatem had a son, Tarek, but divorced in 1968, when Sharif moved to Paris. He loved the city's food and wine but never found another woman he wanted to live with.

He is still based there, though in a different style from his younger days: "I live in a hotel. I've lived alone for ages. Hotels are quite nice when you get older. When you need company you go down to the bar. Lots of the customers know me. I've got a place at the bar, my stool. And if you feel bad in the night you can always call the concierge and say, 'Send an ambulance.' " He chuckles grimly. "If you're alone in a flat, you can feel scared at night."

This last point is not a trivial one: Sharif underwent a heart bypass operation in 1993. Yet typically he found something positive in the experience. Egyptian cardiac surgeon professor Sir Magdi Yacoub, who operated on him at Britain's Harefield Hospital, became a close friend. Yacoub is founder patron of Chain of Hope, a charity that helps medical volunteers to travel worldwide, treat children born with heart defects and train local doctors to assist their recovery.

These days he seems happiest playing the family patriarch. His son, Tarek, is 46, and Sharif has two grandsons: Omar, 20, a university student in Canada, and Karem, 4, who lives in Egypt with his parents. He worries incessantly that his son and grandchildren are financially secure: "That's another reason I didn't make a good movie for 25 years."

Until now, that is. He is proud of his title role in the new French film "Monsieur Ibrahim." He plays a kindly old Muslim grocer living in Paris who befriends a sad Jewish teenage boy with uncaring, neglectful parents; they travel together to the old man's Turkish homeland. With a release scheduled for early next year in the U.S., "Monsieur Ibrahim," directed by Francois Dupeyron, is being heralded as a comeback for Sharif.

"It's beautifully written," he says, "and it has nice big chunks of dialogue, which is what I like to do, rather than riding horses or camels. I'd turned down everything and stopped working for four years. I said, 'I'm going to stop doing that rubbish and keep some dignity.' But when I read the script for 'Monsieur Ibrahim,' I phoned the producers immediately. I said, 'Hang on, I'm coming, wait for me.'

"My problem is finding parts. When you're young and successful, they write or adapt parts for you. But when you're an old chap, let's be frank, you don't sell tickets anymore. If they need an old Englishman, American or Italian, there are plenty of actors around. So what's open for me? Old Arabs. And that's what I play in this film."

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