For years the leading men of the silver screen have fallen into rigid and distinct nationalistic patterns. The Americans sewed up the hardy cowboy roles; the Englishmen cornered the drawing room comedy market; the French were the lovers. If the world ever saw an Arab on screen, it was only as part of a cast of thousands besieging a Beau Geste fort or selling souvenirs in a scene set on the banks of the Nile.
But the times, as Bob Dylan sings it, "are a-changin'," and on the cinema scene today, one of the leading men most in demand is a slightly-built Egyptian with warm, moist brown eyes, slightly graying hair, narrow shoulders, a light moustache and millions of female fans around the world who passionately regard him as the man they'd most like to be marooned with in the Nile Hilton.
Omar Sharif looks intently at you as he speaks. It's his eyes that rivet your attention. They're coffee-colored, hot, liquid-looking. Only when he excitedly makes a point does he bring his hands into play, briefly diverting attention from his steady, intense gaze. When he's pondering an answer, he rests his chin, pensively, on his hand.
The attire is impeccable; the hand-tailored suit from London's Hutsman and Sons, the form-fitting shirt from Turnbull and Asser. Savile Row has come to the Casbah and been made a better place for it.
The clothes surround a slim man built like a swimmer, who says, a little sadly, that he doesn't exercise as much as he should, holding his weight down only "by not eating like a pig," usually just one meager meal a day. There's a gap between his front teeth that has to be covered up for the Cinemascope cameras, but never mind; his warm low voice has enthralled millions of fans in the half dozen major films he has made since David Lean discovered him for the western film world eight years ago.
Just as the teeth have been cosmeticized, so has Mr. Sharif's identity. He's really Michel Shalhoub, an Alexandria-born, Lebanese-Syrian who took his stage name, as do most other actors, for precise box office reasons. One story is he picked the Omar, after the American general, Bradley, and to recall the Persian pearl of wisdom, Khayyam. The Sharif suggests a cross between a sheriff and a sheik. That's what he says, anyway, and with a straight face.
He burst onto western screens in Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, making one of the most beautiful entrances in film history, riding out of shivering desert haze toward Peter O'Toole. O'Toole made big profits out of the film, but Sharif stole the show. "Everything was right in that film," he reflects today. Why did he get the part in the first place? "They wanted a Wog who spoke English," Sharif says with a wry grin.
"I wouldn't have become an actor if my parents hadn't- sent me to a wonderful English school in Cairo," he recalls. "In fact, I think I owe my character to that English school. I was sent there because I was a fat little boy. My parents knew I would lose weight. They were right. The food was terrible. I ate cabbage and played football all day and I lost 28 pounds in a year."
The experience made an intense competitor out of him. He excelled on the football field playing for Egypt. He didn't excel in the world of business, however, failing miserably as a salesman in the family corporation. His father had to give him the sack. The acting career started then as he drifted into Cairo's flourishing Arab film world with the one gift that can guarantee success in Arab films: the ability to register sadness. "A film's success is reckoned by the volume of tears shed by the women in the audience," Mr. Sharif explains.
Making the jump to Hollywood was a gamble but Sharif's a natural crap shooter. "I think everyone was surprised to see me holding my own in Lawrence," he admits. "I was well known as an actor in Egypt before, but we were considered definitely second category to the Hollywood stars."
Now that he's crossed the great divide, he admits that being an Egyptian actor in the western screen world had distinct advantages. "It makes me sound interesting to people. Even exotic."
Exotic or not, it sometimes seems as if film-makers are holding a perpetual Support Your Local Sharif Week, using him in as many different roles as they do. He's played a Russian in Dr. Zhivago, a German in Night of the Generals, an Austrian in Mayerling, an American in Funny Girl, a Mexican in MacKenna's Gold and a Cuban in Che, besides being the Arab chieftain in Lawrence.
Success has permitted Sharif to indulge in his major vice—cards. Much to the horror of his father. "My father encouraged me to indulge as much as I like in drink and women," Mr. Sharif recalls. " 'I don't mind any of that,' he would say 'as long as you don't gamble.' His theory, you see, was that a man can be totally ruined by gambling but can hardly lose his whole fortune through drink and women—only some of it."
Like many a son, Sharif has failed to take his father's advice. "I am a bridge fanatic," he reveals. "I captain the Egypt team in tournaments. I almost turned down the role in Yellow Rolls Royce because there was an important match coming up. Fortunately the starting date of the film was changed."
Says a London bridge correspondent of Sharif, "It's difficult to place a bridge player but he's probably the equivalent of a scratch player in golf. He is an imaginative player, sound, shrewd, very aggressive. He's a studious player—he got there by working at it. He's probably one of the 40 best in the world. He's that remarkable thing, an unspoiled film star."
"Bridge is my most important pastime," Sharif reiterates. "How do you get better? You have to love it, read about it, watch better players. It's a little like being an athlete. You have to have slept well, to be in training; you must have endurance and nerve."
He runs a professional team on the side—the Omar Sharif Bridge Circus— which toured five cities in the United States in 1970 under the sponsorship of a card-making company (and cost him a small fortune in one widely publicized marathon session.) "Bridge is my obsession," he admits. "The only clippings I keep are about my game."
Although, like most actors, he protests that acting really doesn't interest him, in unguarded moments he admits it's very important. He's been doing it since he was 19. "What else could I do?" he asks.
It's his English which gets him so many exotic roles—it's elegant and formal and faintly unfamiliar. "It has altered," he confesses. "When I finished English school in Alexandria, I had almost no accent in English. But then for 10 years, working in Egyptian films, I spoke no English at all. So when I began Lawrence, I had a marked accent. Now it's much softer, although I don't think I'll ever lose it completely. I don't think I would want to. I would hate to be like those perfectly-spoken Pakistanis, whose English accents are so impeccable that they're instantly suspect."
He takes quite seriously the occasional comment from critics that he really isn't a very good actor at all. He strives to improve. "I always believe what the critics write about me," he admits. "You need a bigger ego than I've got to dismiss them all as fools. My attitude is: if they criticizd me, then I must have done something wrong."
"The difficult thing in this profession" he goes on, "is knowing why you're in demand. What is it about you that's so special? Is it your talent, or is it just the fact that you've got pretty eyes? It's very hard trying to find out. That's why, when something is written about us, we spend so much time trying to find out whether it's true."
But there's never any fear on his part about taking on a new role. That competitive fire again. "Why should I worry? I have an enormous amount of nerve."
Sharif doesn't take a vocal position on the complex political issues which rend the Arab world. He's a moderate. "Lawrence was banned by the Arab League for all Arab countries," he reveals. They didn't consider the Arabs were well presented in the film. Sam Spiegel, the producer, rang me in Cairo and asked me if I could do anything. So I arranged for the late President Nasser to see it. He liked it, fortunately, and ordered the film to be released in Egypt without cuts. It broke all records there. Nasser had once before reversed an Arab League ruling over Judgment at Nurenberg so I knew he could do it if he chose. But no one else dared defy the ruling, so Lawrence was not shown in any other Arab states."
But it was Funny Girl, in which he kissed Barbra Streisand, that caused a real furor. "One Egyptian magazine," he said, "published a picture of me kissing Streisand, and said: 'Bar this ... actor from Arab nationality.' My answer was, 'I never ask a girl her religion before kissing her.' "
Such opposition was not new. Before Lawrence, critics in the Arab world blasted him often. "You see, I was the first person ever to kiss their screen idol, Fatin Hamama. She was a sort of Cinderella in Egypt. She'd been filming ever since she was seven and never once been kissed. She had her first screen kiss with me—in my first film, too— and they hated me for it. Then I married her and it really got bad."
He confesses that he's not a political animal. "I have no interest in politics. I never read political articles in newspapers." Or at least that's how he felt until he started to make the film, Che. He then became quite interested in what made Guevara the political animal he was. "It was a shock to discover how totally incorruptible the man was," Sharif admits. "Nothing could buy him, nothing. He wasn't interested in women, cars or money. To someone like myself, totally corruptible, it was inexplicable. How could someone have no self-pity like Che? I am full of it. It's a very Mediterranean thing, self-pity. I cry over myself all the time."
Sharif continues, "He was the antithesis of me. I do nothing. He cared enough to give his life, cared so much he didn't mind dying. I have too many passions for such idealism. Passion for bridge, passion for horses, passion for my work, passion for just living. Yet I feel for him in this role. It has changed me. Everyone asks me about it, of course. I have been forced to find out where I stand."
Sharif is now separated from the popular Fatin after 11 years of marriage and a son. "It's my opinion," he says sadly, "that two stars married to each other whose work keeps them apart for lengthy periods, should separate. And besides no man should marry until he's about 35. By this time he has reached a maturity of mind. He doesn't want to rush around living it up. He wants to settle down. He wants security. It works both ways, of course. A girl shouldn't get married until she's at least 28."
He has not divorced his wife yet. Quite possibly it's because the two are still very fond of each other and both are deeply in love with their two children, one his, one hers. Tarek, the oldest son, spends a great deal of time with his father. He goes to school in London part of the year. "The Headmaster hasn't actually said as much, but I get the impression that he does not approve of my being a film star," Sharif says wryly.
The boy has played in one film with his father. "I don't want him to be a child actor," Sharif insists. "After Dr. Zhivago he was impossible. He thought of himself as someone special. When he did it, he was only seven and I thought he would not be influenced, but he was. It was a mistake. But I want him to be an actor when he grows up. I admit that. I want to stay in his life, you see, and if he became a lawyer or a doctor, I could not."
He adds proudly, "Tarek's already a very good card player—gin rummy, not bridge."
Separated as he is from his wife, he says, "Me a lady's man? It's a myth. I think I am a failure with just one girl. It seems that the only women I have met in the last five years have been actresses and bridge players. Actresses are fun but are not often for marrying. Bridge players are usually too old."
Looking ahead, he reveals, "Personally, I can't wait for the time to come when I have enough money to retire from filming and can devote myself fully to championship matches." The only personal ornaments he drags from hotel room to hotel room when he is on a film tour is a gold plaque which is always hung carefully in the living room. It simply reads, "Bridge Tournament Champion."
Quite obviously, he wants to settle down. The strain of reaching the pinnacle of show business has given him an ulcer which means a strict diet and not very much alcohol. "All I do is keep traveling," he explains. "Hotel room after hotel room. Two months here, three months there. I have no place to rest and grow strong and everybody needs that. Now I'm just buying a house in Paris and I'm going to stay and travel as little as possible. Somewhere where I can keep a few books and my bridge trophies."
Even if Mr. Sharif leaves the screen world, his impact will be lasting. Not because he is a great actor. But because in thousands of cinemas throughout the Arab world, and in front of millions of TV sets, Arab boys will grow up seeing this Egyptian. And saying to themselves ... if he can, why can't I?
"The times, they are a -changin'."
Arturo F. Gonzalez, Jr., author, correspondent and travel editor, has worked for Time and the Reader's Digest and contributed to Argosy, Cue, Cosmopolitan, and the Saturday Review. He is also the author of Eugene Nickerson, a biography.