x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A charmed life

With an overflowing cornucopia of roles behind, Omar Sharif is an actor's actor. But his favourite role these days, he says, is that of doting grandfather.

Omar Sharif is angry. Actually that's something of an understatement. He is incandescent with rage. The dark eyes of Yuri Zhivago that captivated generations of women in the Sixties spit fire and the atmosphere around him is tense, like sitting on the edge of a simmering volcano. The slightest thing sets off another eruption, his voice is raised and his hands chop the air in furious gestures, sparked by a stupid question from a reporter or a request from a photographer for him to smile. At first nobody at the Dubai International Film Festival knows what the problem is and why the normally gentle and courteous actor is so cross.

Then it becomes clear that he is hurt and upset that his new movie, J'ai oublié de te dire (I forgot to tell you), has been scheduled at the same time as the festival's closing blockbuster, Avatar, and in a smaller cinema, without the red carpet razzmatazz. Later Sharif sits down to talk in a calmer mood. "I am a human being. Normally I am very gentle and very peaceful but sometimes I get mad. People who are very gentle when they get mad they get very much so. I am angry today because of things that happened but please don't make a fuss about it, it doesn't matter."

At the age of 77 he says that all he wants now is a quiet life with time to enjoy his family after his peripatetic years living in European hotels and making American movies, a lifestyle that cost him his only marriage to the Egyptian actress Faten Hamama. They had one son together, Tarek, now 53. Hamama, with whom he starred in several of his early movies, was the love of his life and, despite affairs with some of the most beautiful actresses in the world, he says he never really loved another woman.

"I only loved one woman in my whole life. It's true. We divorced because we were separated by the distance. I lived in Hollywood for some time and was making American films and my wife was a very famous actress and she didn't want to give up acting. "She had done it all her life and she wanted to go on doing it. And so she was in Egypt and I was all over the world going left and right and making films here and there. It was very difficult to keep the marriage going. I married when I was 21, I never cheated on my wife and we stayed together for 12 years. Then we separated in a very friendly way. I said to Faten: 'It's impossible, we are too far away from each other and I'm afraid to fall in love with somebody else'".

"I still visit Faten and her husband. I am very good friends with them both. We never quarrelled. I am an actor and she's an actress. There are not many actors and actresses who have long marriages." Sharif, who was born in Alexandria, the son of a successful timber merchant, moved to Europe mainly because in Egypt under President Nasser, travel restrictions were imposed and exit visas had to be applied for, which occasionally made honouring film commitments extremely difficult.

It was a major turning point in his life and overnight he changed from devoted family man with solid roots in his native Egypt to an international heartthrob whose name was linked to many of his co-stars, including Barbra Streisand and Julie Christie. He loved them both at the time, he says, but it didn't last. "Yes I did. I loved all my leading ladies, all of them. I loved them during the time of the shooting but then I had to leave and go to some other country. I was always separated from my friends because I worked all over the world.

"I had three or four girlfriends but not for very long - four or five months perhaps - but I never really loved them. I thought I loved them at the time but when it ended I didn't regret anything. That's the sign that I didn't love. If you love someone and you separate, you have a little pain and I didn't have the pain at all." It was, in many ways, a lonely life. This is something he is now making up for with Tarek and his three grandsons, to whom he is very close.

"It gave me fame and glory but it gave me loneliness too. I missed my friends and my own country. They used to send me to Yugoslavia and to India and Poland to make films, I went everywhere. I even went to Japan and made a film in Japanese. No one saw it. I'm not kidding, they taught me the dialogue phonetically. I was supposed to be Lebanese, born and bred in Japan, and able to speak Japanese." It was one reason that for many years he frequented the glitzy casinos of Europe, something that he has given up entirely now. "Yes I was lonely. That's why I gambled. I went to casinos. When you arrive in a place where you don't know anybody, the only place where you can go and have a meal and they don't laugh at you is a casino. If you go to a restaurant all by yourself and you are a film star they say, 'What's he doing by himself?' In a casino you can eat and gamble a little bit and you can go home. I lost a lot of money. I always spent all the money I made."

More than 40 years after he burst onto western screens in Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, he pauses to assess why he became such an instant hit with the ladies. "It was because I was exotic and it was a very different image from what they had seen before. It was an Arab dressed in black with black eyes and black hair - they thought this was wonderful. This person wasn't like the others with blue eyes or green eyes. I wished I had blue or green eyes then."

Funny Girl with Barbra Streisand cemented his stature as a romantic lead. The film and his relationship with Streisand, a vocal supporter of Israel, landed him in trouble both at home and in the US, and almost led to the withdrawal of his Egyptian citizenship. He explains: "I played a Jewish guy, Nicky Arnstein. Barbra was very Jewish and during the shooting, the Six Day War in 1967 came along, so all these people insulted me. The Arab press asked how could I play a Jewish part and the Jews of America also insulted me, saying: 'Why are we giving him money so he can send it back to President Nasser to help him kill Israelis?' Time magazine came to interview me about all the attacks I was getting and I said I never asked a girl her nationality or her religion before I kissed her."

His life might have been very different had it not been for his mother's ambition to have "the most handsome and famous son in the world". She wanted Sharif to have a glittering career as an academic. Accordingly, he graduated from Cairo University with a mathematics and physics major. "My mother was a little crazy and when I was born she decided that I would be the most good-looking man in the world, that I would be the greatest and most famous person in the world, although not for acting. She didn't want me to be an actor, that was a shameful thing in those days, she wanted me to be a genius in physics, mathematics or something like that. Whenever I made any mistakes, she used to beat me with her slipper on my behind. It didn't hurt too much," he laughs.

"When I was eight years old I became fat and she said, 'My son is ugly, he is awful,' and she thought to herself: 'Where is the worst food in the world?' She decided it was England, so she sent me to an English boarding school. If she hadn't done this I wouldn't have been here. I wouldn't have done Lawrence of Arabia or all these American films. "I learnt English and I became thin. There was a theatre in the school and when I was 13 they gave me the leading part in a play. I thought, 'That's what I want to do. I want to be an actor.' If I had not gone to England I would have become a fat Levantine timber merchant, like my father."

Sharif says he never watches his own movies and seldom goes to the cinema. "I've watched two films in the last 25 years, ET and Billy Elliot, I knew I would love them and I did. I hate seeing myself even in the new movies." Today he says he would refuse the part of a romantic lead even if it were offered to him, joking that his female co-star would have to be 75 "and people won't enjoy that sort of thing."

He still wants to make good films and says that he doesn't care about money. "I decided at my age you are old and you must not think of the past or the future. You must live every minute of your life totally and utterly as if it is your last. I have good health but you never know if it's going to be your last minute. You have to concentrate on your present life. "I'm trying not to make any film that I don't love. I'm reading a lot of scripts. I don't want to make so-so films, but also I don't ask for money any more. I give it all to my son who is 53. He has 15 restaurants in Egypt, so I eat for free. I have told him he must make a will and leave it all to my grandsons so I know where it is going. I give it to him on condition that if I need it he must send it to me immediately. My son pays my hotel bills."

Sharif's latest film is what brings him to Dubai. It is about the friendship between Jaume and a young girl called Marie, recently freed from prison, played by the Belgian actress Emilie Dequenne. During its making, he became fascinated with the subject of Alzheimer's disease, a condition that afflicts his character, Jaume. "I wanted to do a film about the miracle of life. It's a wonderful script and I was very intrigued by Alzheimer's disease. It produces great suffering, not by the people who have it, but by the people around them - the wives, the husbands, the families who see people they have loved all their lives [falling apart]."

"I went to hospitals where patients are cared for because a lot of people can't keep them at home as it's too much trouble. The thing is that patients are not all the same. Some of them are very silent and quiet and some are quite violent. They don't remember when they see their own sons and daughters. It's terrible for the children and for their friends." Between shoots Sharif - who is fluent in Arabic, French, Greek and English, and also speaks some Turkish, Italian and Spanish - lives between Paris and Egypt. In Egypt, he has an apartment in the home of Tarek, who appeared in Doctor Zhivago at the age of eight as the young Yuri.

"My son has been divorced four times. He fell in love with a Canadian girl who was Jewish, then he married a Czechoslovakian Catholic girl, then a Muslim and finally a Russian Greek Orthodox woman." Sharif doesn't drink and has given up smoking after undergoing triple bypass surgery in 1992 and suffering a mild heart attack in 1994. He has also given up the other great love of his life, the game of bridge. At one time he was among the world's best known contract bridge players, with a syndicated newspaper column and several books to his name.

Now his one remaining passion is horse racing, something he shares with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Ruler of Dubai and Vice President of the UAE. "I have racing horses and I love them," he says. "It's my greatest hobby and I often see Sheikh Mohammed who has a very good stable and wins a lot of races. I never win any. I always go and congratulate him if he wins. Recently I had a very good filly called Lixirova and when she won a race he came to tell me: 'Oh you won a race. Congratulations.' She is a two-year-old and she's fantastic."

Sharif feels that he has been very lucky in his life and blessed that he now has the opportunity to enjoy time with his family - something he missed out on during those heady days in Hollywood. "I was a very lucky person all my life, from my birth until this moment. Although I'm touching wood I can say I have never had any bad luck. The greatest piece of luck that you can have is to be born into a family where the parents aren't divorced, where you have Mummy and Daddy in the same house, where they love each other and love you. This is very important for the rest of your life.

"The time I'm spending with my family now, I love. I have three grandsons and my son whom I adore. I wanted a little girl but God did not give me that. I went to a medical consultant and he told me your genes do not produce girls. I said that's such a sad thing to tell me. "Anyway, now I won't be producing either a boy or a girl," he says, pausing and smiling that devastating dark-eyed, gap-toothed smile. Suddenly the years fall away as he adds: "Although sometimes I might be tempted."

Be still my beating heart.