The bitter truth about Omar Sharif's lonely sad life before and after his Alzheimer's diagnosis
Sharif at the Mediterranean Film Festival in Rome in 2011. (CBC.ca)
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The story of Egyptian actor Omar Sharif, star of epics including Lawrence Of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, is perhaps the saddest, loneliest tale in all of movie history.
After a life filled with losses, at the weekend his son Tareq announced the latest tragedy: that his 83-year-old father has Alzheimer’s disease.
But it has also been a life overflowing with wealth, adoration and affairs with the world’s most desirable women.
Sharif squandered his good fortune — with divorce from the only woman he ever truly loved, an illegitimate child he refused to acknowledge, millions lost at the gaming tables, a glittering career abandoned and outbursts of violence.
The harshest irony of all is that, to the public, it always appeared as if he had the most enviable existence. After decades spent living alone in luxury hotels in Paris or London, staying up till 5am every night at the casino or the bar, the actor has now returned to Egypt.
But this is no homecoming: he still lives in a hotel, at a Red Sea tourist resort. His life, it seems, is as rootless and lonely as ever.
Sharif was born Michel Chalhoub in Alexandria, in 1932. His father Joseph was a rich timber merchant, but it was his glamorous mother who would set the course of his life.
Claire Chalhoub was a flamboyant gambler, notorious as the only woman who could match Egypt’s billionaire King Farouk for high stakes.
She was far from maternal: aged ten, Sharif was sent to boarding school, Cairo’s snobbish Victoria College, where Claire hoped the harsh regime and basic diet would make him lose his puppy fat.
It was the school’s theatre that would prove his inspiration. He played the title character in his first production, The Invisible Duke, concealed in a box on stage for most of the play. The thrill when he surprised the audience by bursting out had him addicted from the start.
Joseph Chalhoub was aghast to hear that his son wanted to be an actor. When he forbade it, the teenager staged a suicide bid — slashing his wrists, though later he was adamant he had not really intended to kill himself.
By now, the would-be star was already a ladies’ man, selling his possessions if he couldn’t cadge money from his parents to take girlfriends to dinner.
He had applied to the London drama school RADA, when in 1954 he landed a part in an Arabic film called The Blazing Sun, after the leading lady took a shine to him.
Faten Hamama was the most famous actress in Egypt, but she had never been kissed on screen before. The young lothario chose Omar Sharif as a pseudonym, to spare his father’s embarrassment.
The kiss provoked a national sensation. Raised in the Greek Catholic church, Omar converted to Islam, so that he and the Muslim Faten could marry. Over the next seven years they made more than a dozen movies together.
But the relationship fell apart in 1962 when Sharif was cast as Sherif Ali in Lawrence Of Arabia. Director David Lean hired him, not for his acting, but for his liquid brown irises — a perfect contrast to the star Peter O’Toole’s glittering blue eyes. Sharif’s first appearance, shimmering out of the desert haze, won countless admirers.
But the attention destroyed his marriage. Convinced that he would not have the strength to remain faithful, he told Faten that he wanted a divorce — while she was still young enough, he said, to remarry.
They separated in 1965. He always described her as ‘the love of my life’ and often declared that no other woman ever won his heart. Faten was not so romantic or self-destructive — she married again, to a doctor.
A string of short-lived romances followed. Sharif was linked to actresses Tuesday Weld and Diane McBain, and to Hollywood veteran Ingrid Bergman.
In 1968, he worked with Barbra Streisand on the musical Funny Girl. ‘I thought she was not very attractive at first,’ he remembered. ‘But gradually she cast her spell over me. I fell madly in love with her talent. The feeling was mutual for four months — the time it took to shoot the movie.’
Streisand blamed the heady romance of the film. ‘It’s hard to stop loving someone when the director yells cut,’ she said. ‘Fact and fiction got mixed up, and I think we both lost our heads for a while.’
Later that year he was starring opposite Catherine Deneuve in the historical drama Mayerling, and another on-screen love affair spilled over into real life.
‘I realised that I couldn’t have been in love,’ he said, ‘because it didn’t hurt when the relationships finished.’ A short relationship with actress Barbara Bouchet followed, after she posed nearly naked in Playboy magazine.
By now, though, all Sharif cared about was pocketing fees for roles, however dire, so he could pursue his twin passions — playing bridge and breeding racehorses.
‘I don’t think I could live without a deck of cards in my hands,’ he declared, when asked on BBC radio’s Desert Island Discs in 1978 what luxury he would need most as a castaway. But the cards and the casinos were bankrupting him.
After losing £750,000 in one night at roulette, he was forced to sell his house in Paris, and announced: ‘I don’t own anything at all apart from a few clothes. I’m all alone and completely broke. Everything could have been so different if only I had found the right woman.’
His gambling addiction, he admitted, was madness, but he could not stop. He blamed boredom, and the loneliness of living out of a suitcase. His agent became used to Sharif’s desperate calls, demanding work so that he could pay urgent debts.
Often, the actor even had to reverse the call charges. But however many shoddy movies he made, he was always ‘one film behind my debts’.
He hated the roles. Though he could act in six languages — English, French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and Greek — he had an accent in all of them, and so was always cast as ‘a foreigner’: a Sultan, a Spanish priest, a Mexican cowboy, or Genghis Khan.
In 1999, when an Italian journalist claimed he was the father of her son Ruben, born in 1969, he reacted coldly: ‘I had a very brief affair — I’m speaking of minutes.
'I don’t consider him to be my son, although I concede that he was probably produced by a sperm of mine. But then it is possible that I might have 100,000 sons.
‘In those days, men never bothered with contraception. We assumed, rightly or wrongly, that the woman was on the Pill. The boy looks exactly like me, but his mother used me as a sperm donor. I am not his father.’
He did, however, dote on Tareq, his son with Faten. And he adored his grandchildren, whose mockery of his dreadful films made him ditch acting in the mid-Nineties.
Gambling was not so easy to renounce. After losing more than £20,000 at the Enghien-les-Bains casino in Paris in 2003, he headbutted a policeman and was given a suspended prison sentence.
It wasn’t the first time he had been threatened with jail for his temper: he was arrested in Greece for smashing up a restaurant.
At a hotel car park in Beverly Hills, he brawled with an attendant, while four years ago he lashed out at a female fan who was badgering him for a photograph.
But his womanising was over. He had quit a 100-a-day cigarette habit, too, following a heart attack in his hotel room in 1994: as he collapsed on the bed in Paris’s George V hotel, in agony, he was unable to think of anyone he could call for help.
He still had a reputation as an insatiable lover but the truth, he said, was more mundane: usually, he preferred to go for a walk.
‘There are moments when I’m happy, but others when I’m not,’ he told this newspaper in 1999.
‘Maybe some people have better lives than me. I hope they do.’
In 2012 he turned 80. He slipped into a melancholy routine: sleep till noon, bathe and walk the streets of Paris on his own. ‘I have no friends in Paris,’ he said last year. ‘I want someone to take me out in the evenings.’
His career enjoyed a brief resurgence with films such as Monsieur Ibrahim in 2003, which won him a César (the French Oscar), but by then he was dogged by rumours of dementia.
Sharif denied having Alzheimer’s, but when Faten died in January, aged 83, their son Tareq was forced to confront the final tragedy of his father’s life.
He broke the news of her death to Sharif, who reacted with deep grief. A few days later, the old man had forgotten. ‘How is Faten?’ he asked.
Sharif is said to be aware that he was an actor, but can no longer distinguish one film from another.
The last great romantic idol of cinema is fading away. But Streisand spoke for millions of women when she looked back on their whirlwind affair: ‘He was one hell of a guy.’