The secrets of Omar Sharif's enduring allure
The Egyptian star, who died last week, embodied an explosive melange of suaveness and passion, of indolence and fire
I had noticed his tall, elegant silhouette and his mane of curly white hair. Dressed in a caramel cashmere coat, and carrying old-fashioned trunks of a well-known French luxury brand, the man walking in front of me, about to get on the Eurostar bound for Paris, oozed bygone sophistication. I imagined him as a passenger on the Orient Express. As he climbed on to the train, I finally saw his profile. He turned and looked at me with a smile. My heart skipped a beat. It was Omar Sharif and we would be travelling in the same coach.
I spent the journey thinking about what Sharif meant for millions of cinephiles such as me. I was in my late 20s, he was in his late 60s, but the fact that we were two generations apart and from two different worlds was beside the point: cinema transcends time and knows no frontiers. Having grown up in Paris, with more art-house cinemas per inhabitants than any other city in the world, I counted Sharif among my cinematic "close friends" and "knights in shining armour".
When David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia was re-released in France in 1989 in the restored 221-minute director's cut, I went to see it every afternoon after school, eight days in a row. Peter O'Toole fascinated me, Anthony Quinn and Alec Guinness enthralled me, Anthony Quayle touched me, but Sharif completely disarmed me. Here was a man who seemed both unassuming and terribly manly, mesmerising and approachable. Sharif embodied this explosive melange of suaveness and passion, of indolence and fire.
A few years later, a publisher specialising in small books about movie stars asked me who I would like to write about. I said Sharif, but for this, I wanted to meet him again. I soon discovered that he spent summers in Deauville at the Hotel Royal, winters at the Sheraton in Cairo, and spring and autumn in Paris at the Royal Monceau. I checked; he was in Paris. I delivered a long letter to the concierge to pass on to Sharif. He never replied and I never wrote the book, but I remained an ardent admirer.
Omar Sharif was a pure creation. Born Michel Chalhoub of Lebanese, Greek Orthodox and Syrian parents, the chubby child was given an education that opened his eyes to the world. His mother, who occasionally played cards with King Farouk, enrolled her son in an English boarding school with the hope he'd lose weight. She had assumed rightly - the food was appalling and Michel became a lean young man. Fluent in five languages, as were most children of Egypt's bourgeoisie at the time, Michel decided to become Omar in his early 20s, simply because it was easier for his fellow Egyptians to pronounce. A son of Egypt, Sharif was much more than that; he was a son of the Levant, at a time when the region was a melting pot and a land of opportunities.
And then Lean gave us Omar Sharif. He was 30 when the world discovered the polyglot Egyptian actor. Sharif reinvented himself again. He could play any role, more often than not giving fine performances: a Russian physician in Doctor Zhivago; a Nazi officer in The Night of the Generals, alongside Peter O'Toole as another Nazi officer; an Austro-Hungarian prince in Mayerling, desperately in love with Catherine Deneuve; a Jewish refugee in Funny Girl in love with Barbra Streisand.
America was probably the one country he found difficult to relate to. Strangely, Sharif, who had been Hollywood's favourite foreigner in the 60s, found life there too alienating: "Imagine, most Americans don't hold a passport, they don't know the world," he once remarked. In fact, Sharif's appeal was that he personified the exile who hides in every one of us. After leaving Hollywood, he spent the next 30 years as a nomad, his house folded into worn-out Hermes trunks.
His gambling and love for horse-racing, for which he became known in the last decades, were a way to kill ennui, the darker side of exile. For many years, he had a bridge column in the Observer. In 2003, he had produced and starred in M Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran, a French film directed by Francois Dupeyron in which he played a Turkish shop-owner who befriends a Jewish teenager. The French public flocked to see him and he came out of his retreat to receive many film awards. It was a renaissance, one he hoped to pursue.
The contemplation of the world and its woes saddened him. This reminded him of when Egypt made him persona non grata in 1968 when he filmed Funny Girl in the middle of the Six Day War. Barbra Streisand was a staunch supporter of Israel, and his off-screen love affair with her exacerbated the offence. Sharif, asked to justify himself, replied simply: "When I kiss a woman, I never ask her nationality or her religion."