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Sharif doesn't dwell on past glories

Slow pace, little luxuries suit 'Zhivago' star

PARIS — As night falls on Paris, Omar Sharif is getting breakfast: a stiff whisky and water, bowls of salted almonds and juicy black olives, a plate of finger food.

"I can't drink on an empty tummy," says the Egyptian actor, nibbling smoked salmon off a coin-sized wafer.

Once one of Hollywood's most dashing leading men, with bedroom eyes and a silky accent that melted hearts, the star of "Doctor Zhivago" and "Lawrence of Arabia" is today settled in life's slow lane. At 70, his riotous days, his ruinous passion for gambling, his 100 smokes-a-day habit are things of the past, he says.

This year is Sharif's 50th in movies. But in an hourlong interview, it's the more mundane pursuits in his life that catch attention: reading the newspapers during long leisurely afternoon baths in the deluxe Paris hotel he calls home; evenings watching his horses race; his whisky tipple; nights wining and dining in restaurants.

In sum, he appears as a man with the luxury of being able to do exactly as he pleases.

"I have no plans for tomorrow, and I don't have memories of yesterday. I live now," he said. "At my age you can die any moment. It's not likely but possible, and therefore I want to do what I feel like doing."

Physically, he looks good. His big brown eyes still have the watery shine he used to such effect as the tortured poet in "Zhivago." His once wavy dark hair is still thick but has gone a downy gray-white. He's tanned from vacationing in Egypt. A dulcet Arab lilt softens his slow, carefully enunciated English.

To his surprise, Sharif says, he's recently been getting "a huge amount of scripts," but he's being picky — trying to avoid the roles that saw him plunge from Golden Globe-winning highs ("Zhivago," "Lawrence") to horrid lows ("Oh, Heavenly Dog!" and "Ashanti," among others.)

Sharif has appeared in more than 70 movies since his debut in Egyptian film in 1953, but since his heyday, many have been supporting roles, cameos or made-for-TV.

"I didn't have any pleasure for the last 25 years because I was doing rubbish — that's all. I was just doing it to make a living," Sharif said. Now, "I will work if I'm moved by something, by a script, something I find challenging."

Sharif will appear on French screens this August as an old Muslim who adopts a Jewish boy in "Mr. Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Quran," directed by Francois Dupeyron.

"I loved the part," the actor said. "Even though it's not political it is a statement of some kind . . . of friendship and love."

He made the movie in French, which he speaks fluently along with Arabic, English, Spanish and Italian.

Sharif also will appear with Viggo Mortensen in Disney's horse-race adventure "Hidalgo" this autumn. He plays an Arab sheik, but he seems more passionate about the paycheck than the role.

"I got very well paid," he said. With the funds, "I have a little for a couple of years, I don't have to worry. That's how I live. As long as I have a couple of years ahead, money for a couple of years, I'm OK."

Born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1932, Sharif attended college in Cairo and worked in the family lumber business before turning to film. As an actor, he met his wife, actress Faten Hamama, and became Egypt's most popular star. Then he caught director David Lean's eye for the part of Sheik Sherif Ali Ibn el Kharish in "Lawrence," the 1962 best picture Oscar winner.

Forty years later, Sharif talks with pride about the movie — "It's a great film and will remain a great film forever," he says — but he wonders whether he might have been better off without the fame it brought.

"It separated me from my wife, from my family. . . . We didn't see each other anymore and that was it, the end of our wedding," he said. "I might have been happier having stayed an Egyptian film star."

They had one son, Tarek, who played Yuri Zhivago as a boy in Lean's 1965 epic.

Sharif peaked in his role as the older Zhivago, but it's not a film he loves. "It's sentimental. Too much of that music," he said of Maurice Jarre's Oscar-winning score.

Sharif is also remembered for "Funny Girl" in 1968, opposite Barbra Streisand, who won a best actress Oscar for the musical.

But gradually, after a string of subsequent flops, Sharif's star dimmed and he became known instead as a world-class bridge player. He has written a book and newspaper column about the game — but says he rarely plays now.

"I had become addicted," he said. "I used to go to bed and dream about the cards, the way I should have played them."

Advancing age, he says, has also stopped him from gambling — a habit born in the rootlessness of going from one movie shoot to another.

"Casinos are a place you go to when you arrive in a town where you know nobody," he said. "The reason that I stopped gambling about 10 years ago is that I'm not sure anymore than I can earn all the money that I want . . . It's an age where you have to be careful."

His enduring passion is horses — he has eight. One of the reasons he bases himself in Paris is its race courses. Another is the anonymity. "No one bothers you. French people don't care — they are too selfish to care," he says.

At the hotel where he lives, within sight of the Arc de Triomphe, it's "like home — with lots of servants."

His routine is regal. "I get up at midday, and then I have a very long bath and read all the papers in the bath and then I have an hour of exercise, keep fit," he says. He eats just once a day, at night, so "this is my breakfast," he says of his pre-dinner whisky and nibbles in the hotel's posh lobby.

"A hotel is very convenient," he says. "I don't imagine being a bachelor and living anywhere else — an old bachelor, not a young one, because young bachelors can have lots of girlfriends."

Which, since you're probably wondering, is something Sharif insists he's never had.

"Very few can claim to have been my girlfriend . . . I never lived with anyone after my wife. Not even one week, not even a weekend, not even a day," he says.