Monday, May 25, 2015

Remembering Omar Sharif before he is a memory

The Associated Press confirmed the bad news late Monday afternoon: Omar Sharif, the Egyptian-born actor who shot to superstardom in the 1960s after scoring back-to-back-to-back hits with Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago and Funny Girl, is battling Alzheimer's disease.

And here's a bittersweet irony: In what likely will be his last feature film, Laila Marrakchi's amusing dramedy Rock the Casbah, Sharif gives one of his finest performances of recent years -- as a ghost who invites us to join him at his own funeral.

As I wrote in my Variety review from the 2013 Toronto Film Festival:

Omar Sharif — who’s appropriately acknowledged in the credits for his “exceptional participation” — suggests a tone of magical realism during the pic’s opening minutes, as he playfully introduces himself to the audience as Moulay Hassan, a recently deceased industrialist who’s eagerly awaiting the gathering of his clan for three days of mourning at his palatial villa in Tangiers. With a beaming smile and a courtly stride, Hassan offers to serve as a combination narrator and master of ceremonies, in the manner of those who hosted public movie screenings — and repeatedly warned audiences not to take anything they see too seriously — ages ago in Morocco.

Sharif makes such a winning impression as Hassan during this prologue, it’s actually disappointing that the role turns out to be little more than a sporadic cameo. Even so, Marrakchi makes clever use of the iconic actor as comic relief whenever the plot threatens to turn too soap-operatic...

Sharif leaves the audience wanting more. But, then again, perhaps Marrakchi figured that if she gave him more screen time, he might fold the pic into his pocket and jauntily stroll away with it.

As fate would have it, I've had only one opportunity to speak with Sharif, during a 2003 interview graciously arranged by the folks at Sony Pictures Classics to promote Monsieur Ibrahim (for which Sharif would win a 2004 Cesar award as Best Actor). The conversation would also serve well as background material for a profile of Viggo Mortensen I later wrote for Cowboys & Indians magazine. Sharif and Mortensen had co-starred in Hidalgo, the 2004 adventure drama about an American cowboy who competes in a long-distance horse race across the Arabian Desert. During the on-location filming in Morocco, the two men developed a mutual admiration society that greatly enhanced their on-screen interplay.

“Not only was I working with this wonderful actor I knew best from Lawrence of Arabia," Mortensen told me. "We were working in some of the (Moroccan locations) where they shot some of that movie 40 years ago. That was an amazing experience for me. I mean, to be working there with the man himself, Omar Sharif, was great just in terms of being a witness to film history.

“But it was even better to get to know that man as a human being. He’s a very generous, extremely professional actor. But it doesn’t take more than a few minutes to tell that he’s also a genuinely intelligent, well-read person. And he’s got this aura about him that’s beyond anything a lighting designer or a cameraman can do. He just has a certain gleam in his eye, and that smile of his. He’s so in the moment, and so alive. He just radiates a love of life.”

I dearly hope I captured some of that spirit in a 2004 piece I wrote about Sharif. Here it is, in a slightly expanded version.

Omar Sharif is on the phone, calling from his home in Paris -- specifically, a suite in the luxurious Hotel Royal Monceau, near the Champs-Elys̩es Рand cheerfully confiding that, all things considered, life is good.

At 72, the Egyptian-born actor and perennial bon vivant devotes most of his days to leisurely meals and animated conversations with close friends, and spends most evenings at favorite restaurants, or attending the theater or the opera. “I still gamble,” he admits with a chuckle, “but only very, very lightly, on the horses. Because I love horses, I love going to the races, and being with racing people. I love the company of jockeys and trainers.”

Despite his international reputation as a bridge player, he rarely touches cards anymore. “But I still play sometimes for charity,” he admits. “I put myself up for auction, and people bid for the right to play with me.”

Occasionally, filmmakers still bid for his services as well. He bluntly disparages most of the movies he has made during the past three decades as insubstantial, disappointing or, in more than a few instances, just plain godawful. During recent months, however, he has appeared in two much worthier features: Hidalgo, Joe Johnston’s period drama about an American cowboy (Viggo Mortensen) in an Arabian horse race, and Monsieur Ibrahim, in which Sharif plays the title role. Both films are worth a visit to your friendly neighborhood video store. And while you’re there, you also can check out Omar Sharif in such career highlights as David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago (1965), William Wyler’s Funny Girl (1968), James Clavell’s The Last Valley (1971), Blake Edwards’ The Tamarind Seed (1974), Richard Lester’s Juggernaut (1974) – and, of course, Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1965).

Has anyone in movie history ever had a better entrance scene than you did in Lawrence of Arabia? When you appear from out of nowhere in the middle of the desert, and ride that camel right toward the camera? 

It’s not only a great entrance for the character, but also for a new actor. That was my first American movie. And after that, I couldn’t put a foot wrong. I always say that any actor who would have played that part with that entrance would have succeeded.

And now you’re back in the desert in Hidalgo. The big difference is, this movie looks like a Western.

Actually, it’s more of an adventure film, set in the late 19th century. And it’s a true story. Viggo Mortensen plays a [former U.S. Cavalry scout] who comes to Arabia to compete in the “Ocean of Fire,” a long-distance race in the desert. I play a sheik who bets on the race.

Did director Joe Johnston ever mention why he wanted you for the role?

[Laughs] Well, really, if I don’t get the part of an old Arab, what am I going to get? I might as well throw myself out the window. I mean, if they don’t cast me, who are the going to cast? After all, Anthony Quinn is dead. So it doesn’t take a lot of imagination for them to choose me.

You actually did appear in a Western called Mackenna’s Gold back in 1969. How did that come about? 

I had a son who at that time was 8 or 9, and he hated all my films because he hated love stories. He wanted me to be in a Western, so that he would enjoy it. So I put the word out in Hollywood that I wanted to do a Western. That’s why I did that picture. I played a bandit named Colorado. The movie wasn’t very good, I’m afraid. But can you imagine the cast that was in that film? I remember I had a scene by a sort of campfire or something. And there was Gregory Peck, there was Lee J. Cobb, there was Edward G. Robinson, there was Eli Wallach and Telly Savalas and Raymond Massey. All these great actors were sitting around the campfire, and I was making a speech to them. The thrill of just meeting these people – that’s a thrill that can’t be duplicated.

Speaking of stars: How did you get along with Viggo Mortensen during the making of Hidalgo?

It’s so important when you’re making a film to get along with your partner. And I must say, I found Viggo Mortensen to be a very quiet, very gentle person. I know he’s becoming a very big star, but he is not at all big-headed or somebody who thinks he’s everything in the world. He even gave me copies of books he’s written, with his poetry and photographs, and signed them for me. We got along so well because he was so charming and nice.

He appears to be very serious about his work. Do you think actors of his generation might be a tad too serious? 

I think young actors today are really terrific. They’re much better than young actors were in my day. But, yes, they do take their work much too seriously. They get into trances almost. For actors of my generation, when we used to play scenes and work at films, we used to have a laugh before the shot and be relaxed about it. And when the time came to shoot, we concentrated and did the job. We didn’t have to go into a trance and sit in a corner and go into a whole mood-altering thing to do a scene.

So you’re saying that, as an actor, you can be a professional while still enjoying yourself?

Look, for me, acting is a vocation. From when I was 13, that’s all I’ve wanted to do, I didn’t consider anything else. I feel like the only way you can get away from it is when you don’t get any opportunities at all. I think there are people who are born and die and who are great actors, but who never get an opportunity to act. If you’re fortunate enough to have people to hire you and give you parts, you’re very lucky. And you shouldn’t throw it away. You should take advantage of that luck that you have. So it’s not like actors of my generation don’t take it seriously. It’s just that we had fun doing it.

Were you always so happy with your co-workers when you started making Hollywood movies in the ’60s?

My thought was that I wanted always to work with good directors. That was my ambition. Whatever genre it was, all I wanted to do was work with a good director. And I started off my American career by working with the greatest directors in the world. After Lawrence of Arabia, I worked with Fred Zinnemann on Behold a Pale Horse. It’s unfortunate that it wasn’t successful. I later worked with Anthony Asquith [on The Yellow Rolls Royce] and Anatole Litvak [The Night of the Generals] Maybe they weren’t successful films, either, but these are things that you don’t turn down. I mean, you can’t turn down co-starring with Ingrid Bergman, can you? Unfortunately, too many of these movies flopped, and that’s what killed my career at that point.

Still, you continued to make movies for decades afterward. But didn’t you announce you were retiring a few years ago?

I never said I wasn’t interested in making movies anymore. I said I wasn’t interested in making bad movies. That’s something completely different.

You’ve been known to be quite critical of most films you’ve made.

That’s true, I have a very low regard for a lot of them. When you’re a box-office draw, they can change things around, and cast you in any sort of thing. But when you’re not a draw anymore, and you’re an old guy, it’s difficult to find parts. So I decided not to do any rubbish anymore, just to keep some self-respect. It got to the point where my grandchildren were making fun of me. I only continued to get good work as long as I did because I made three consecutive films – Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago and Funny Girl – that were big box-office hits. It took a long time for me to get knocked down from there. Because I went up so many stairs, there were a lot of stairs to come down.

I'd be remiss if I didn't tell you that, back when my wife and I were dating, one of our favorite movies -- one we saw time and again -- was The Tamarind Seed, the 1974 romantic thriller you made with Julie Andrews and her husband, director Blake Edwards.

[Laughs] That was the last thing anywhere near-decent that I did.

Still, you seem very pleased with Hidalgo. And you’ve gotten some of the best reviews of your career for Monsieur Ibrahim. You play an elderly Arab shopkeeper who becomes a surrogate father for a neglected Jewish youngster in ’60s Paris. It is a politically charged drama?

It’s political only because of the actual situation. In other words, if the Arabs and the Jews were at peace now, it would be irrelevant that boy is Jewish and the old man is an Arab, a Muslim. It’s just the story of two lonely people, really. One lonely old man, and one lonely little boy. But it’s relevant because all the problems we have now between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And I wanted to make the statement that it is possible to live together and to love each other. That religion or race has nothing to do with love or friendship. But, really, I never have profound reasons for doing something. If I read something and if strikes me as something I’d like to do, I just do it. This was something beautifully written, I think. And I’m very suited for it. The character that I play has the same opinions that I have. And I thought it would be a nice little film. I thought it would be a labor of love.

Does “labor of love” mean you were working on a limited budget? 

We did have a very small crew – maybe 10 people – and a hand-held camera. We were very intimate the whole time while we just went around shooting scenes. But it was a great experience for me, because I’d never done this sort of thing before. You had to always be in character, because you never knew when they were going to turn the camera on you. The director held the camera, and he could decide to look at you, or look at the boy, or he could pan from one to the other. You don’t know when he’s going to focus on you, so you have to be always in character, always concentrated. Which is a very good thing. It helps you in playing your role.

 You and your young co-star, Pierre Boulanger, develop a very affecting chemistry together. But don’t you remember what W.C. Fields warned about acting opposite children? Weren’t you worried about being upstaged?

Well, this boy is very good, and he does steal all the scenes. But that’s OK, because the film’s really about the boy, it isn’t really about me.

At this point in your career, what does it take to get you interested in signing on for a film?

A good part. A good scene. One good scene. When they send me a script, I need to have one good scene. I don’t want to appear all during the film and have nothing to do, or saying nothing interesting. I want to have something to do that excites me, that makes me work hard. That makes me dig into myself, and get something out of myself.

You seem to be enjoying life a great deal these days.

Listen, I’m at an age now where if I don’t make myself happy all the time, I’d be an idiot. You have to live for the moment and be happy. And love people – I love people all the time. That’s why I want people to see Monsieur Ibrahim. I hope that people will see it and learn how to love each other just a little bit. Even if just one person learns how to love – if one Arab learns to love a Jew, if one Jew learns to love an Arab – it will be OK for me.

It's sad to think that the time will come -- hopefully not for a while, but it will come, just as sure as the turning of the earth -- when Omar Sharif remembers none of these things. That's not only tragic, it's more than a little unfair -- because many of us will continue to have so many fond memories of him. Strangely, yet perhaps appropriately, I am reminded of the orginal advertising slogan for, of all things, Heaven's Gate: "What one loves in life are the things that fade."

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