The lonely Lothario: He bathed in bubbly, out-caroused O’Toole, seduced Hollywood co-stars galore and gambled away millions. But Omar Sharif squandered his talent – and died angry and alone
- Omar Sharif died aged 83 after suffering a heart attack in Cairo
- Egyptian film star rose to fame in classics like Lawrence of Arabia
- But admitted he threw away his own career for carousing and gambling
- In recent years the star, suffering from Alzheimer’s, revealed he was lonely
Even in his final years, Omar Sharif never forgot how his mother smacked his backside with a slipper every day until he was 14.
Although the star of Doctor Zhivago, Funny Girl and Lawrence Of Arabia brought a smouldering screen intensity that captivated some of the world’s most beautiful women, one can understand his mother’s frustration.
The dashing Egyptian film star with the mournful gap-toothed smile could be a very naughty boy.
Omar Sharif, here with Julie Andrews in 1974’s The Tamarind Seed, threw away his promising career in favour of gambling and carousing
Sharif died yesterday at the age of 83 after suffering a heart attack in Cairo. In May, his son had revealed how the star had been suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.
It was a sad finale for a rootless, lonely actor who, in later life, spent decades in hotels in London and Paris, finally returning to Egypt (where he also lived in a hotel), presumably so he could die in his homeland.
Sharif, pictured here in November, admitted that he squandered his life
Although he was certainly not lacking in self-belief, he was the first to admit that he had squandered his life and career, throwing away the early promise he showed for the easier pleasures of carousing and gambling.
He and his Lawrence Of Arabia co-star, Peter O’Toole, were two of the greatest Hollywood hell-raisers of their generation. But to wining and womanising, Sharif added a third vice he had inherited specifically from his mother.
He became an inveterate gambler, touring the casino tables of Europe, frittering away his fortune which he had to replenish by taking uninspiring roles as the ‘foreign gentleman’ or ‘exotic lover’ in a string of forgettable films.
Sharif eventually gave up on acting, becoming a world-class bridge player and largely devoting his life to gambling instead. ‘I’d rather be playing bridge than making a bad movie,’ Sharif once declared in his defence.
Critics might have noted that if only he had applied himself to acting, the talented performer — who could act in six languages — might have spent his life making ‘good’ movies.
Instead, he lived in Paris because he could enjoy the city’s casinos and the nearby racetrack at Deauville. He gave up roulette after losing £750,000 in a single night, but continued to leach money as only a gambling addict knows how. Psychiatrists might have seen trouble ahead from Sharif’s earliest years.
Lawrence of Arabia, with Peter O’Toole, in 1962 was his first international film.
Born Michel Demitri Shalhoub in Alexandria in 1932, he was of Lebanese ancestry. His father was a successful timber merchant who made extra money salvaging barbed wire left behind by the British after World War II, turning it into nails.
They lived in a wealthy area of Cairo where his glamorous, extrovert mother became a noted society hostess. Regular visitors to their home included King Farouk, the Egyptian monarch who was deposed in 1952.
‘My mother used to play cards with King Farouk,’ Sharif recalled. ‘He believed she was good luck to him — she was his mascot . . . My mother used to sit up all night.’
His parents packed him off to a tough, traditional English-style boarding school in Cairo when he was ten. It was there that Sharif discovered his love of acting — a passion that horrified his father, who wanted his son to follow him into business. When his father forbade him from doing any more acting, the young Sharif dramatically slit his wrists in what he admitted later was not a serious suicide bid.
Even as a teenager, he was already indulging another lifelong passion — women. If he couldn’t persuade his parents to give him money he needed to take out girlfriends, he would resort to flogging his possessions.
Sharif graduated from Cairo University with a maths and physics degree, and spent five years in the family business. But he couldn’t resist the siren call of acting.
He won a place to study drama at RADA in London and landed his first screen role in an Arabic film called The Blazing Sun. In the first of what was to prove a long line of off-screen romances with his co-stars, he began an affair with the film’s main attraction, Egyptian actress Faten Hamama.
They soon married and Sharif — flirting briefly with calling himself Omar El Sharif — went on to make 32 Arabic-language films and a couple of French ones.
He got a role as Lawrence’s tribal ally in his first international film, Lawrence Of Arabia, not because of his acting but because its director, David Lean, saw his black eyes as the perfect contrast to Peter O’Toole’s dazzling blue ones. Lean simply picked out Sharif’s photo and decided to give him a screen test.
He and O’Toole complemented each other perfectly in other ways. During breaks in filming in the Jordanian desert, the pair would carouse wildly in the fleshpots of Beirut. O’Toole recalled how they would enjoy bathtubs filled with champagne and once managed to gamble away nine months’ wages in a night.
‘We’d drink without stopping for 48 hours . . . we went hunting girls in every bar, every nightclub,’ Sharif revealed in his memoirs, The Eternal Male.
The pair’s hard partying almost ruined the film’s Hollywood premiere as they were arrested the night before in the company of the comedian Lenny Bruce, who was caught shooting up heroin with a syringe. ‘[The producer] Sam Spiegel got us out of jail,’ Sharif recalled years later. ‘He arrived with six lawyers. Of course, we were completely terrified.’
As a result of Lawrence Of Arabia’s huge success, Sharif became an international sex symbol overnight. As women fell at his feet, Sharif — weak-willed and self-absorbed — couldn’t cope. Claiming that he wouldn’t have the mental strength to remain faithful, he told his wife he wanted a divorce while she was still young enough to remarry.
They separated in 1965 and Sharif would mournfully always describe her as the great love of his life.
Sharif swapped the steadiness of married life for a string of short-lived affairs, including ones with the actresses Tuesday Weld and Diane McBain.
As with so many actors of his era, he seemed unable to make a film without sleeping with his co-star. While he was put off Julie Christie, his co-star in 1965’s Dr Zhivago, by her habit of eating fried egg sandwiches on set, he fell for Barbra Streisand when they made Funny Girl in 1968.
Their affair didn’t last any longer than it took to make the film and the same thing happened when, later that year, he starred with Catherine Deneuve in the historical drama Mayerling. ‘I realised afterwards that I couldn’t have been in love,’ Sharif later said of his dalliances with his co-stars, ‘because it didn’t hurt when the relationships finished.’
The glamorous German-American actress Barbara Bouchet appeared near naked in Playboy — an act which was enough to stoke Sharif’s interest, and they had a brief affair.
Whether or not he was being sincere or just fishing for compliments, Sharif claimed to be puzzled by his sex symbol status.
‘I don’t know what women are attracted to,’ he said. ‘But certainly I have no notion about having any sex appeal.’
Although he showed an acting versatility — playing everything from an Austrian crown prince to a New York Jewish gambler and even a romantic drama, The Tamarind Seed with Julie Andrews— he gradually fell out of love with acting. He became the world’s best-known contract bridge player, forming the ‘Omar Sharif Bridge Circus’ in 1967 which toured the world. He also wrote various books on the game.
As he spent more and more time in the casino or on the stud farm he kept in Normandy, Sharif would only return to acting whenever he needed money fast. He blamed his gambling addiction on loneliness and boredom.
Predictably, the quality of the films got worse and worse as he took anything that came along the moment he needed cash.
His agent would wait for Sharif’s desperate calls, imploring him to find him work immediately. He couldn’t help it, he insisted in his somewhat self-pitying way. ‘I don’t think I could live without a deck of cards in my hands,’ he said on Desert Island Discs.
After losing £750,000 in that single night, Sharif said he had to sell his home on Paris’s Bois de Boulogne and start living in hotels. He complained at the time that he was ‘all alone and completely broke . . . I don’t own anything at all apart from a few clothes’.
Everything, he added, ‘could have been so different if only I had found the right woman.’
He never did. Instead, his romantic life descended to the tawdry. An Italian journalist claimed he had fathered her son, born in 1969. Sharif insisted that it had been a ‘very brief affair’ and he didn’t regard the boy as his son. ‘It is possible that I might have 100,000 sons,’ he added, explaining that ‘in those days’ men ‘never bothered with contraception’. The boy’s mother ‘used me as a sperm donor,’ said Sharif.
It wasn’t just lovers he sometimes behaved shamefully towards. He had a violent temper, once being arrested for smashing up a restaurant in Greece. He was convicted of assaulting a policeman in Paris and also got into trouble for fighting with a hotel car park attendant in Los Angeles.
Even at 79, he lashed out at a female fan when she pressured him for a photograph. By the time he turned 80 in 2012, he had quit his 100-a-day cigarette habit after suffering a heart attack in bed in Paris’s George V hotel.
Although he doted on his son, Tareq, by his marriage to Faten and also loved his grandchildren, Sharif would complain that he had few friends. At least none he could remember. Although Sharif denied suffering from Alzheimer’s, that was clearly untrue. When Tareq broke the news in January that his mother Faten had died, Sharif was deeply upset. A few days later, however, he asked how she was.
Asked about his life as a star, Sharif said: ‘It gave me glory, but it gave me loneliness also. And a lot of missing my own land, my own people and my own country.’
But he had no regrets, he insisted. ‘I don’t know the meaning of the word. If I was back there again, I would do it the same way.’
He added: ‘Luckily, not everything I did was rubbish for money. I have had some great moments.’
Nobody who has seen Lawrence Of Arabia or Dr Zhivago would disagree with that.