When Egyptian actor Omar Sharif and British actor Peter O’Toole starred in Lawrence of Arabia in 1962, they formed a friendship that would last throughout their lives.
In an interview with Sharif’s grandson, Omar Sharif Junior, young Sharif shared stories about the antics of the two during filming. From years of listening to the two actors reminisce about their experiences, Sharif Junior learned a little more about his grandfather’s sex life than he really wanted to know.
The elder Sharif was born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1932 as Michel Demetri Shalhoub. His parents, Joseph Shalhoub and Claire Saada Shalhoub raised him as a Roman Catholic in the city of Cairo. He earned a mathematics degree from Cairo University and worked in his family’s lumber business until he began acting in Egypt in 1954, first appearing in Siraa Fil-Wadi. In 1955 he married Egyptian actress Faten Hamama after converting to Islam and changed his name to Omar al-Sharif. The marriage produced one son, Tarek Sharif, Omar Junior’s father.
His dark good looks brought him to the attention of director David Lean, who cast him opposite O’Toole in Sharif’s first American film. During the film’s shooting in the desert of Jordan, the actors were pampered by Lean who, although both actors were married, flew in beautiful young women to share in their off-screen antics. Sharif Junior grew up hearing stories of champagne filled bathtubs and rowdy visits to bars in Beirut. When asked if his grandmother knew of these tales, young Sharif replied that he never discussed it with her but said his grandfather’s promiscuity was probably a factor in their divorce in 1974.
Sharif’s Best Actor in a Supporting Role nomination for the Academy Awards and his Golden Globe win in the same category secured his place in Hollywood.
In 1965 Lean again contracted with Sharif to play Yuri Zhivago, a poet, and physician in his award-winning movie, Doctor Zhivago. His relationship with Julie Christie, who played his love interest, Lara Antipova, proved trying, to say the least. He dubbed her the “sandwich girl” as she had a penchant for eating fried egg sandwiches during filming which annoyed Sharif to no end.
In 1968 Sharif played Nicky Arnstein opposite Barbra Streisand’s Fanny Brice in Columbia Pictures’ Funny Girl. Based on Brice and Arnstein’s real life marriage, the movie was banned in some Arab nations due to Sharif and Streisand’s off-screen romance during filming. Streisand was Jewish and openly pro-Israel, causing outrage in Egypt. According to Sharif Junior, his grandfather brushed off the affair claiming it was only lust, but the young Sharif says he knows his grandfather loved Streisand by the way he always spoke of her, especially in his later years.
According to Sharif Junior, Funny Girl is his grandfather’s favorite movie because one could see the real Omar Sharif in his portrayal of Arnstein. Sharif loved horse races, casinos, and the nightlife. He often took his grandson along to racetracks, allowing him to bet small amounts in order to feel the excitement of having his horse win. He also allowed young Sharif to participate in his conversations with friends and international bigwigs until the wee hours of the morning and took him to the Academy Awards and the after parties.
Sharif Junior also claims that his grandfather was the one to teach him about the birds and the bees, telling him, “…making love is like playing bridge, you either need an incredible partner or a really good hand.” The elder Sharif was an expert at both as he was once ranked among the top fifty contract bridge players in the world.
When young Omar decided he wanted to go into acting, his grandfather insisted he finish his education first. He also told him he was on his own and would not use his influence to help his grandson, the Mirror reported.
Omar did complete his education, earning a B.A. from Queen’s University, a Master’s in Comparative Politics from the London School of Economics and a degree in Performing Arts from The Lee Strasberg Institute. He did some modeling work in Egypt and appeared in the Egyptian miniseries Wagh el Qamar in 2000.
When he revealed his homosexuality in 2012, his grandfather fully supported him but upon receiving death threats from his fellow Egyptians he relocated to Canada to be with his mother and then later to the United States. His work on behalf of the gay community earned him The Advocate’s 40 Under 40 award in 2014 and 2015 and Attitude Magazine’s Inspiration Award in 2016.
Sharif Junior praised his grandfather’s advocacy for tolerance and feels the elder Sharif, who died of a heart attack in 2015, would be proud of him.