By Ray Bennett
LONDON – Omar Sharif, who has died of a heart attack in Cairo aged 83, was an international movie star who was always rather embarrassed about the way he earned a living.
He said, ‘The things going on in the world are so important, it becomes sort of silly to be merely an actor.’
And so the star of ‘Dr. Zhivago’ played bridge.
He was on tour with a team of crack European bridge players when I met him in Detroit in 1970. His team played local groups with a side bet going to charity if they lost.
‘There is nothing more significant about playing bridge than making movies,’ he said, ‘but bridge is a game of the mind. There is a general ethical rule that no matter where you go other people are forced to cut you into a game.
‘It’s a game that has a very great gentle human relationship to it. If people have a passion in their lives, something innocuous like bridge or golf or fishing, you rarely find them yelling their prejudice, hating, and so on. The sour-pusses, the ones with nothing in their lives, they are the ones who hate. People with a passion don’t have time for this nonsense.’
After he devastated the women of the western world when he rode out of the desert in his first English-speaking movie, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ a decade earlier, Sharif made more than one mediocre film. He said, ‘I don’t like very much what I’ve done. I can’t forget “Dr. Zhivago” because it was the most important but I don’t have a favourite. In order to keep the excitement, you have to believe that the last film was the best and the next film will be better.’
His latest film had been the title role of ‘Che!’ about which he said he was bitter: ‘They made changes and I was fighting something bigger than myself. In the end, I gave up the fight. I never saw the picture.’
His next film, ‘The Last Valley’, based on a story that happens during the Thirty Years War and co-starring Michael Caine, was due for release in the fall.
An Egyptian citizen, Sharif was light-hearted about the banning of his films in his homeland: ‘”Dr. Zhivago” was banned out of courtesy to the Russians, who didn’t like “Funny Girl”, which was banned because they don’t approve of Miss Streisand.’
Of Funny Girl Barbra herself, he said, ‘I’m very fond of her. I think the world of her. We had a very good relationship and we are good friends. For her, work is everything. She is selfish I guess, when she’s working, but then one should be. But I always fall in love with my leading ladies. It’s very difficult not to.’
Long black hair streaked with red dye from his role in ‘The Last Valley’, sideburns down to his chin and looking spry in a fit 5-foot-11 frame, Sharif said he liked to play bridge ‘because since I was a kid I have liked puzzles. Bridge is a series of little puzzles.’
This story appeared in The Windsor Star on Feb. 18 1970