Omar Sherif: I Get Scripts Every Day, But I Haven’t Found Something I Really Like

Published May 26th, 2001 - 02:00 GMT

Golden Globe winner Omar Al Sherif was born Michel Dimitri Shalhoub in 1931 to a wealthy Alexandrian family of Christian Lebanese origin. He was discovered in Egypt by director Yousef Chahine in 1953, then nine years later discovered again by David Lean. 

His introduction to the Western audiences that were to adore him was a scene in Lawrence of Arabia when he appears out of the shimmering desert horizon galloping on a camel. Then, he did it again with Dr Zhivago.  

When Lawrence came out in 1962, he became a superstar overnight. He was the only Arab to do so. Hollywood accepted him and he accepted Hollywood. He was the face of the Arab for Westerners -- at least, the good face -- for the best part of 20 years. His ability to adapt probably had something to do with his wealthy upbringing, mixing with foreigners, and speaking foreign languages.  

"It was very good luck and I had a very wonderful part. I mean, anybody who would have played this part would have succeeded, with this costume and this entrance. And I was striking looking, I must admit, now that I look back on it. I was quite striking as a person when I was at that particular age. And I was nominated for an Academy award immediately and all -- everything was right…Lawrence was a huge success. It was nominated for 10 or 11 Oscars, I was nominated. I got three Golden Globe awards. It was a very big thing. Peter O’Toole became a star also. It was not your ordinary success. The premise of a film four hours long being successful with only unknown people -- they weren’t movie stars -- going around the desert on camels, I mean, it was something extraordinary. But it worked out,” Sharif told Cairo Live.  

After that, his reputation a drinker, gambler and womanizer loomed larger than his acting career. His presence in public consciousness well outlasted his shelf-life on screen. He gradually drifted back to Egypt, starting in the late 1970s. After heart surgery in 1993, he decided to quit Paris. But still his life has the air of someone of no fixed abode.  

He displays the modesty and the fatalism others have noted before, betrays the tinge of sadness and sense of a lost soul that probably goes a long way to explaining why so many women fell in love with him. But none of them stayed, not even the one he married, Faten Hamama -- by his own admission the only woman he ever really loved. They divorced. Only twice does he perhaps dissemble. He maintains his film with director Yousef Chahine in 1953 was his first ever outing on celluloid -- though directors say he had done bit parts before. He denies he ever sanctioned a book about himself -- but he once related his life story to a French journalist and it’s been translated into Arabic, according to the Cairo Times.  

Sherif is almost as famous for his gambling as for his dashing screen persona. His face endorses card game products all over the world. On the Internet you can interact with him any-which-way-you-want on the intricacies of Bridge, even if you’re a beginner. "It’s a wonderful way to pass the time, it’s a beautiful game, a very very clever game, and you get a passion for it once you start."  

But the Bridge master says that on several occasions he gambled away all the money he possessed and told his agent the next day to take the first film that came to him. "I made so many of those [films], it’s countless. I made 30 or 40 films which were just because I had to quickly make some money.  

"My mother’s a big gambler. She encouraged me to gamble because she wanted people to say I’m like her, not like my Dad. God knows why she wanted that. So when you start gambling you have no respect for money, it’s just chips. I got it at an early age and couldn’t get rid of it.  

"I never invest my money in anything, I spend all my money, I don’t have money. I’ve earned a lot of money in my life, but spent it all. The only thing I invest in is horses or something stupid [like that]. I’m not an investor. I have no relation with money, I don’t comprehend [money]."  

It’s five years since he last acted. That was in Ayyoub, the last of four Arabic films he made after returning to Egypt in 1984. By his own admission, though, his acting career started to go downhill in the West from the early 1970s when he played so many roles in films beneath his status as a truly talented actor. Now he says he can’t find anything that suits him. "I’m looking. I’ve been looking for something for the last three or four years. I get scripts every day, but I haven’t found something that I really like."  

Sharif was offered the part of the caliph in Chahine’s Al Masir, but turned it down. "The script was very bad. Mind you, I have done many horrible films with bad scripts, but I hate to do a bad film with a good director. I don’t mind doing things for money with bad directors, but if I have an opportunity to work with a good director I prefer it to be good" – 

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