September 7, 2003|He made one of the cinema's greatest (and lengthiest) entrances in Lawrence of Arabia, appearing as a heat-obscured speck of dust that gradually adopts the form of a black-swathed man on horseback, one Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish. Omar Sharif's regal stride into our appointed meeting place, a third-floor room within Toronto's Hotel Intercontinental, felt almost as dramatic to me, for his every step is weighted with a half-century of fame. Mr. Sharif is at the Toronto International Film Festival promoting a delicate French film in which he stars opposite young Pierre Boulanger, François Dupeyron's Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran. The picture works largely because of the legend-in-his-own-time baggage the actor brings to the title role of a neighbourhood grocer yearning to pass his considerable wisdom on. When I interviewed him, Mr. Sharif was, like his alter ego Ibrahim, pensive and forthcoming, with little patience for subtext. I found him both gracious and melancholy, and was heartbroken when our all-too-brief time together ran out.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: How's your bridge game these days?
OMAR SHARIF: I've slowed down a lot, my bridge game--I don't play often now, because I've noticed that my faculties are not as sharp as they used to be.
Is that from playing so much? Makes you careless?
From old age! (laughs)
So you recently won a lifetime achievement award at the Venice Film Festival. What's your reaction to that?
Well it's a great honour, but it's also a sunset sort of thing. It gives me a feeling of...the sunset coming, it's not a sunrise feeling. It's like, "Thank you for living so long."
This year, it will be fifty years since that I've been working as a professional actor.
Does it make you want to work more and fight that sense of finality?
No, it doesn't. I had almost stopped working before [Monsieur Ibrahim] came along because, for the last thirty-five years, quite honestly, I've been doing rubbish. I have a problem with casting because I'm a foreigner in every country that makes films. When I was young and a star, they used to adapt the parts or write them or rewrite them specially to fit me. But nowadays, you wouldn't take an old Egyptian to play an old anything--except an old Arab. So now I content myself if I get a good part--there are a lot of bad parts, of course, which I have done before but which I'm trying to avoid just now.
That's what you saw in Monsieur Ibrahim? Something you specifically could do?
Oh it's a beautifully-written script. The language is absolutely wonderful, the French is wonderful. Apart from that, there seemed to be an opportunity for me to send a little message. I'm a very popular person in the Arab world, they rather love me, and I can say to them that, "Look, it's possible to live with a Jewish person." That it's possible to love a Jewish person. It is not impossible to live together, and that it shouldn't matter what people are--black or white or Jewish or Christian or Muslim, it doesn't make any difference. One should not decide who to like or dislike by their race or religion. I dislike mean people. Period. Whatever they are. And I like nice people, whoever they are. I don't ask someone when I meet them, "Oh, what religion are you?" I don't get so elementary.
When you came to prominence in the Sixties, it was still a pretty intolerant time. You seemed to transcend a lot of ethnic boundaries by simply not ever allowing yourself to be pigeonholed--by never specializing in a nationality. Would it be fair to say that was the secret to your success?
I was very fortunate because the first film I ever made as an international actor was one of the great films of all time, Lawrence of Arabia. And the part was perfect for me, just perfect. I was nominated for an Oscar the first time, I had two Golden Globe Awards, it was like a fairytale. It was maybe...people were ready for an exotic type of manner, and so I shot to stardom very quickly, and then I had the good fortune not to be typecast because--only because--David Lean, who knew me well, I had made Lawrence with him and we had lived together for two years making Lawrence, had the idea to cast me as Dr. Zhivago, a Russian poet. And I was flabbergasted when I was asked, because I thought, What are you doing asking an Arab on a camel to play a Russian poet? That started a change. The very next thing I was asked was to play a German colonel in a film called The Night of the Generals, with Peter O'Toole and directed by Anatole Litvak, one of Sam Spiegel's contract films--[Peter and I] had a contract with Sam [who produced Lawrence]. So yes, all of these things helped me out a lot.
Then came Funny Girl.
Then came Funny Girl, I played Nicky Arnstein. During the Six-Day War we made that film, that's attached to my memory of it. (In 1967, a war was fought between Israel and the allied Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. The war ended in Syria on the sixth day of active conflict. -Ed.)
I wasn't aware of that.
Yes. And then, after that, I made a series of films with very good directors that went sour. About six or seven of those. Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer--I mean, it was not that I made bad choices. I let myself be chosen by wonderful directors and it just didn't work out. But after that came spending too much and being broke and making films because I was always one film late on my debts. It's after that you have casting problems.
You turned to theatre and have spoken positively of that experience.
I turned to theatre. I did a play in London, which ran for about one year, it was a huge success. The trouble with the theatre is it's constraining because you can't leave the town you're in. What I missed was going on a weekend somewhere, going for three days to Rome or somewhere nice. I had to be in London all the time for one year.
If Monsieur Ibrahim comes to be considered a comeback role, is that something you'll embrace?
Well, I don't think it can do huge box-office, because it's a gentle, fragile... There's no action, really, nobody hits each other, nothing great happens in the film. It's a film that, hopefully, you go watch and when you come out you feel slightly better than when you went in. You have a few smiles, and you shed a tear or two, and then that's it. I've already made a big American film, a very expensive film, which was done out in Spain, after Monsieur Ibrahim, with Viggo Mortensen.
Hidalgo, yes. I have the second lead in that film. It's quite a good part, I enjoyed it, I enjoyed working with the director. I like Viggo Mortensen quite a lot.
How about a quick anecdote from your David Lean days?
David Lean, he was like my father. He adopted me as his son, in a certain way. I didn't talk about myself all the time--he resisted actors because they talked about themselves all the time and he wanted to talk about films. Not about people, the only thing he talked about was film. I remember he used to ask me, "What are young directors like, Omar? Are they doing things that I don't know about?" And I said, "Look, I'm working right now with a young director, I'll introduce you to him." I was making a film with Sidney Lumet (1969's The Appointment -Ed.), and I said to Sidney, "Come and have dinner with David, he wants to meet a young director." Sidney says, "But I have nothing to say! What would I say if I met David Lean? He's so different from me, he's so--" And I said, "C'mon, do me this favour, just have dinner with me and David." So we had dinner, and David Lean allowed Sidney to talk all the time. David is a terrific listener, you had enormous concentration from him when you talked, he used to listen so carefully. His eyes were riveted on the person talking. And after a while, Sidney Lumet started to ask a question or two of David, and David answered, and suddenly, the whole thing reversed itself, and Sidney is like a little boy, listening to this man talk about films and about cinema. It was a wonderful thing to watch, I watched this turnaround, which was so beautiful, so fascinating.