By Sherif Awad
Omar Sharif was a legend. We grew up watching him sharing the screen with great stars like Jean Paul-Belmondo, Gregory Peck and beautiful vedettes like Sofia Loren or Julie Christie. On Egyptian Television, we re-discovered his first black and white films with beautiful actresses like Soad Hosni, Faten Hama, his own wife and maybe his great love. Over the years, Omar Sharif has never lost his simple yet charming presence, his tranquil voice and his surprising openness. Sometimes he gets too serious while he throws a sarcastic comment on one of his memoirs.
After starring in more than 20 films in Egyptian cinema, Omar Sharif made a spectacular entrance in movie history when he co-starred in David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia (1962) alongside an international cast including Peter O’Toole, Anthony Quinn and Alec Guinness. His role as Sherif Ali granted a double Golden Globe win for Best Actor Drama and Best Supporting Actor, an Oscar nomination and another starring role with Lean in yet another all-time epic Doctor Zhivago (1965). From film, to theatre and television, Omar Sharif became the most famous Egypt star with an international career that spawned half of a century. He worked with the best filmmakers (and, as he put it, sometimes the worst), the most beautiful leading ladies and travelled all over the world becoming an art ambassador of Egypt. Long years of agony and likewise ecstasy; as he was praised as much he faced cruel words coming from his own home country. Nevertheless, Sharif returned to Egypt to bring up in his own craft to contemporary local cinema and television. He made an impressive starring role versus Egyptian star Adel Imam in Hassan & Morcos where he played the religious Muslim Sheikh Mahmoud who goes undercover as the Coptic Morcos to hide from hunting extremists only to befriend a priest going through the same dilemma. An interview made years ago…
What can you tell us about your early years growing up in Alexandria?
At you might have known, I was born in the downtown neighborhood of Cleopatra El-Hamamat, near Seidy Gaber Station in Alexandria. My own mother played a major role in my life although I was told that she had many difficulties in my labor because I had a big head (laugh). I remember that she tough on me for my own sake since she wanted me to become the best young man in town. She first took me to French schools where I didn’t learn any English, the language I relied on later in my international career. At the time I turned eleven, I remember that became a very fat boy because I was addicted to cakes. Seeking more discipline, my mother moved me to British school where, in addition to learning the English language, I started to act in school plays as soon as I turned thirteen.
It was noted that your first roles in Egyptian cinema were colorful varying from comedies like Ishaaet Hob (Rumor of Love-1961) to drama (Naguib Mahfouz’s Bedaya We Nehaya) and romance (Nahir El- Hob). How did you manage to land these varieties of roles?
I think I did because of my looks; I was a jeune premier who got cast in more than twenty-five Egyptian films in the golden age of cinema. Some films I did for their good scripts others I only signed the dotted lines when I needed extra cash. And to tell you the truth, I still follow this criterion until now. Between then and now, I had responsibilities and families to support. I raised my own son Tarek and Nadia, the daughter of my ex-wife Faten Hamam, and my grandsons along the years. I remember that, before I travelled abroad, my biggest paycheck was three hundred Egyptian Pounds per picture compared to Five Thousands for Hamama. My longtime friend Ahmed Ramzy and our contemporaries like Shokry Sarhan were used to be paid the same amount. Other like Abdel-Halim Hafez, who a singer/actor, was offered more than Hamama. In those days, we didn’t have a shooting script. The director and the screenwriter used to arrive at 13:00 to write the lines we should use in our scenes. Then, we used to arrive at the studio at 14:00 to learn our lines with the assistant director and to shoot everything in one take.
Afterwards you landed your first international role as Sheikh Sherif Ali Ben El Kharish in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). How did this role come on your way?
At that time, sir David Lean, the film’s great British director, was starting to lose hope in finding a professional actor with Middle Eastern looks who can also speaks fluent English. After his assistant casting director brought him all the profile photos of Egyptian leading men of this decade, Lean picked up mine and, after verifying I spoke the language, flew me over to London where I did a camera test only to land the role of Sherif Ali.
Sir David Lean was more of a father figure to me and he treated me like own son. I remember that, before the film wrapped up, he said to me: “Omar, once Lawrence of Arabia is released, you’ll become an international star. So don’t accept another role of an Arab riding a camel and always try to refresh thoroughly your image. Try to accept films that will push forward your career and not films that will rely on your own name to achieve success”. But of course, I didn’t follow up these golden advises all through my long career because circumstances are sometimes stronger than us. Nevertheless, I was very hard working and used to go on my shooting day-offs to watch other great actors I worked with Like Peter O’Toole and Alec Guinness to absorb their methods and techniques into inhibiting a character.
We grew up hearing this story about you being criticized in the Arab Press about starring and kissing Barbara Streisand in Funny Girl back in the sixties.
Yes, because when we started to shoot Funny Girl, the 1967’s War ignited between Egypt and Israel and I like caught between two fires. In the United States, the Jewish community started to say that I was using my payments from Hollywood Studios to help Nasser fighting Israel. While back in the Arab world, they were saying I am working with a Jewish actress. But let me tell you something from an insider, the whole film industry, not the American one only, is mostly controlled by people from Jewish origins. So Journalists from the Time and the Newsweek started to pop-up questions about how do I think that my own people are attacking me in the printed media. And simply, my reply was that I was only doing a musical comedy not a political drama! Moreover, I told them that I follow a certain code: When I decide to kiss a girl, I never ask her about her nationality or her religion.
It is noted that in the 1970s until early 1980s you didn’t appear in Egyptian films as you focused in your international work in Europe and America. Then you had frequent starring roles that started in Egyptian TV films like Ayoub (1983) with Fouad El-Mohandes then in El-Aragoz (1989) with Mervat Amin and El-Mowaten Masri (1991) with Ezzat El-Alaily.
After I finished Lawrence, I found myself committed to several international films but I returned to Egypt once in 1965 to star in El-Mamalik (The Mamluks) as a favor for my producer Helmy Rafla and director Atef Salem who, at that time, was launching the career of a young girl that became his wife- now known as star Nabila Ebeid. Afterwards, it was difficult to go back and forth because we, Egyptians, needed to have an Exit Visa from Mogama el-Tahrir to travel abroad. As for actors, we used to be called in Egyptian slang artists, and we needed to issue an additional Certificate of Good Conduct from an office Kasr El-Nile Street. I remember that I and Fatin Hamama used to stand in a long line to get this piece of paper. Ironically at the end and after many officers gave us a hard time, we were given like twenty pounds as travel expenses! So I decided not to comeback to Egypt until this bureaucraty faded away. Although many nationalities were offered to me, I never switched my Egyptian passport. Then, maybe ten years later, I met President Anwar Sadat in a party held at the White House during Gerard Ford’s presidency. I remember that Sadat took me in his arms and, with his deep voice, invited me to his own son’s wedding in Egypt. So I was started to comeback, and to accept film offers again from Egyptian producers.
Another great moment in your film career was receiving the Cesar of Best Actor for your role as the title character of Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran (2003), a film that reflects tolerance between holy religions with the friendship between your character and a young Jewish boy.
Monsieur Ibrahim made me got back after two years of hiatus because I didn’t expect to find any picture or role that could make me comeback in from of the cameras again. While I was on vacation in Cairo, I had chance to read the script which made me moved because this theme interested me at this point in history. I am open to all religions and I liked is that it was a story about incidental friendship between humans. It didn’t matter that the boy was Jewish and Ibrahim was Muslim; what mattered was the exchanging trust understanding that was born between the two of them.
Your role in Hassan & Morkos seemed like a continuation to these thematic elements. The movie reflected religious bigotry in Egypt through the eyes of these two friends and their families. Before Hassan & Morkos, has the idea of casting you alongside Adel Imam ever surfaced?
I guess not because filmmakers always thought of me as a serious dramatic actor although I love comedy more than any other genre and I once starred in farce theatrical play on London’s stages, which lasted for over fifteen months. But when he got the screenplay of Hassan & Morkos, Imam looked for an equal, an equivalent, with whom he can share the screen. So actor Mohamed Imam, his own son who is also co-starring, told him:”Why don’t we call Omar Sharif?” And so he reached my friend Inas Bakr who called my chauffeur (Because I don’t carry a cell phone). Finally, we reached each other and he invited me to his home at One O’clock in the morning. After a brief discussion, I said yes and never asked how much Good News, the film’s production company, will pay me.
The TV serial Hanan We Hanin (Tenderness and Desire) by your longtime friend Inas Bakr, didn’t achieve the expected reception among viewers on Egyptian TV.
Hanan We Hanin was a fictionalized retelling of my own life story. It was about how I was longing for Egypt in the 1970s and how I was wishing to comeback but I couldn’t. When I was in Europe, I used to invite my Alexandrian friends from different Greek Jewish origins, and I recited my favorite poems y Salah Jahin in a house corner I called the Egyptian corner. Back to your question, I think the serial was too “soft” for nowadays audience who are exposed to an overdose of melodramatic and violent. But now, viewers are rediscovering it in its reruns on terrestrial channels. I think Inas did a good job in writing and directing the serial as well as it was chance to share the screen again with my longtime friend Ahmed Ramzy after fifty years after Ayamna El-Helwa.
Since you have become honorary president of the Cairo Film Festival, You improvised word in the opening nights that touches Egyptian and foreign alike.
I was first asked to become festival president when Saad Wahba passed away back in 1997. And few years later, I did an interview for the Egyptian El-Kawakeb Magazine mentioning that we should move the festival outside of the crowded capital to Luxor, Sharm El-Sheikh or even Thebes. So one journalist took the final sentence and re-verbalized it making me wanting Israel to come to the festival. Then Mohamed Saad, the chief editor of El-Kawakeb at that time, wrote a big article against me in the opening column of a special issue he created to discredit me. When they offered me the honorary presidency, I couldn’t refuse because I never say no to a demand related to my country Egypt. I appear on stage facing the spotlight without preparing anything beforehand and I let the words flow from my heart.
More than a hundred films in half a century. Now, after this entire impressive career, how do you define stardom?
It’s a mystery and a bit of luck. I was lucky that my parents didn’t get a divorce and my mother took care of me. When I wanted to become a professional actor, I never started in small roles. Youssef Chahine offered me the starring role Siraa Fil-Wadi (The Blazing Sun-1954) opposite Faten Hamam, an epic that was selected to represent Egypt in competition of Cannes Film Festival. When I worked the Lawrence of Arabia, my first international role, I got an Oscar nomination and a double Golden Globe win. You know, I never asked for all of this; it just landed in my lab. I am now in my 77 and still do good starring roles which are more difficult to find for actors in my age.
You also shared the screen with most beautiful stars. What is beauty for Omar Sharif?
To tell you the truth, If have the Mona Lisa hanged on my wall, I will get bored looking at it every day. I never fell in love with gorgeous women. I worship a smart woman with whom I will enjoy a good conversation while listening to good music. I never believed in love at first sight; neither in life or in the movie.
What do we expect next from Omar Sharif?
A man of my age doesn’t think of the past because it brings nostalgic sad memories and neither the future because he doesn’t control it. I only think of today and tomorrow and not the day after tomorrow. In France, where I shot drama called J’ai oublié de te dire (I forgot to Tell You) where I play an old man suffering from Alzheimer with writer-director Laurent Vinas-Raymond. Then in Egypt, El-Mosafer (The Traveler) by Egyptian filmmaker Ahmed Maher was recently released. I play the older version of Khaled El-Nabawy’s character, an Egyptian whose journey spans over the last century.