Retro Actor Spotlight: Omar Sharif

Giving Classical Cinema’s players another chance to shine in the limelight

Now Featuring: Omar Sharif

 

It’s a funny thing about first impressions. Personally, I used to trust my initial instincts about things and make a somewhat cemented judgement from that. Only as I grow older do I find that that many of my preconceptions have evolved and/or are in the process of, which is not only a part of maturing but is also proof that we are never too old to change our ways and learn new things.

The first time I saw Omar Sharif on-screen was in 1968’s Funny Girl. He was, of course, dashing and a very convincing romantic lead but his character ended up deeply hurting Barbra Streisand’s ‘Fanny’. Being at an impressionable age with a callow mindset, I wrote Sharif off as a cold-hearted pig without batting an eye. (This attitude cannot simply be blamed on youth as sometimes it can be very difficult to separate real people from the characters they portray.) For many years after that, I did not go out of my way to see any of his other work until I became more aware of him while living in France and seeing him on television. Omar has always been revered here especially since he spoke the French language so well and generally being seen as a veritable cultural icon. To my delight, when I finally watched Doctor Zhivago, I fell head-over-heels for his talent and my opinion of him was forever changed for the better.

Omar in 1960.

Michel Demitri Chalhoub was born on 10 April 1932 in Alexandria, Egypt, a city which was founded by Alexander the Great. His mother was of Syrian-Lebanese origin and his father, a timber merchant, was of Lebanese origin; the family belonged to the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. From a young age, Michel was educated in Egypt-based French schools where he learned to speak the language and, to his mother’s dismay, also started to eat a lot of gourmet food. Finding her son too fat, Mrs. Chalhoub decided to send then 12-year-old Michel to an Egypt-based British boarding school; a solution she chose solely because she thought he would dislike the poorly reputed British food. Her plans worked because Michel lost weight and more importantly, he learned to speak English in the process. He also started dabbling in theatre productions, a passion that he temporarily gave up after returning home in order to first attend university and then work in the family wood business. Though Michel was miserable in this line of work, he stayed on for two years until his father fired him. The experience of working in commerce left a bitter taste in Michel’s mouth and he would later tell an interviewer, “Tous les commerçants sont des voleurs” (translated: “All merchants are thieves”). Soon thereafter, Michel would land a movie role and appeared in his first film in 1954 at the age of 22. He quickly fell in love with one of his subsequent co-stars, Faten Hamama, an Egyptian actress one year his senior who was already married and the mother of a young child. She would later seek and be granted a divorce. Michel and Faten were married in 1955, an event that prompted his conversion to Islam as well as his name change. From that point forward, Michel would be known as Omar Sharif.

Omar’s career steadily grew and with it so did his ego. Having achieved stardom at such a young age left Omar unprepared for a life in the public eye which resulted in his becoming susceptible to bad behaviour. Some people within the industry lost confidence in him which, in turn, cost him many roles. Luckily for Omar, he was able to refocus on his work and change his attitude, building a solid filmography. Sometime in the early 1960’s, director David Lean happened to see a photo of Omar and decided to test him for a part in his upcoming film without knowing whether or not the Egyptian star spoke English. According to Omar, Lean eyed him as he was getting off the plane to meet him and had already made-up his mind to cast him before they even exchanged “Hello’s”. After agreeing to do the part, Omar signed a seven-year contract with Columbia Pictures. His performance in 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia brought him great acclaim and propelled him to international stardom. Three years after, he would again star under Lean’s direction in the film Doctor Zhivago. Omar worked steadily into the late 1960s although work started to taper off in the 1970’s, a trend which Omar attributed to changing social and political trends around the world. Despite never again seeing the level of success he achieved in the 1960’s, Omar worked steadily into the 2010’s.

Omar in 1972.

Becoming an international celebrity had a mixed effect on Omar’s life. Professionally-speaking, he enjoyed the success but always considered himself an amateur actor, never being satisfied with his performances. He stated on more than one occasion that he would have preferred being a professional card player and that if he had no other choice than to be an actor, wondered if he would have been happier not ever having reached international fame. Omar learned a valuable lesson early-on in his career when his head got too big and he learned to prefer a more toned-down lifestyle. This is not to say that he did not have vices that were sometimes (falsely) exploited by the tabloids. Personally-speaking, Omar separated from his wife after relocating to the United States in the mid-1960’s. Feeling sexual desire about other women, he restrained himself long enough to tell Faten that he wished to separate. Even after he once again became a bachelor, Omar insisted that he only moderately sowed his oats, telling one reporter towards the end of his life that he had slept with less than ten women in his lifetime. Though he played up the image of being a Casanova, he never again lived with another woman, fell in love, or got re-married. He spent a great deal of time racing horses, playing cards (Bridge), and enjoying good food and wine.

Omar suffered from Alzheimer’s disease which was apparently not diagnosed until quite late, at least according to the public reference of his difficulties as simply being “memory problems”. It is quite possible that some of the information I gathered from the many interviews I consulted could differ from other sources. This is not intentional and apologies are given to his family if any information seems inaccurate. I did notice some subtle inconsistencies in his stories though they were nothing terribly serious. It could be that Omar was affected early on by Alzheimer’s in very much the same that Rita Hayworth was, continuing interviews over the years as the disease went undetected.

From my research on Omar, I can honestly say that I am thrilled to have discovered more about an amazing human being who was very down-to-earth and modest. He answered questions with complete honesty and without restraint, never shying away from even the most embarrassing of questions surrounding such issues as his gambling habits and losses. The most touching thing was hearing Omar say that he never turned down a request for an autograph because he knew the day would come when people would no longer ask for one! 🙂

Omar in 1974.

 

Here’s looking at you, Omar

  • Had one son, Tarek, with wife Faten Hamama, and two grandsons, Omar & Karim.
  • Was known to friends as “Cairo Fred”. This nickname came about from Peter O’Toole who started calling Omar ‘Freddie’ after insisting that no real person could have been named Omar Sharif.
  • Was fluent in 5 languages: Arabic, French, English, Italian & Spanish.
  • Was one of the world’s best Bridge players.
  • Great believer in luck and destiny.
  • Is considered to be the most prominent Arab international film star in history.
  • Recipient of two Golden Globes & 1 César award.

Good Pals: Peter O’Toole & Omar Sharif

Omar Sharif holding his Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe for ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, presented by Mexican actress Elsa Cárdenas.

Omar Sharif holding his Best Actor Golden Globe for ‘Doctor Zhivago’, alongside fellow winner English actress Samantha Eggar.

Omar Sharif holding his Best Actor César award, alongside fellow winner French actress Sylvie Testud.

 

Omar was an accomplished singer, recording in English, French & Italian: