Omar Sharif Jr. on His Grandfather: Trips to the Oscars and Pies in the Face
"I gave you my name, I gave you my looks. I'm not going to give you anything else. You have to do it entirely on your own," the legendary actor told his grandson when he broke into acting.
This story first appeared in the July 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
One of my first memories of my grandfather: I was 4, and it was my birthday. He was staying at The Ritz-Carlton in Montreal, and he ordered two banana cream pies from room service. As soon as he sang "Happy Birthday," he took one of the pies and shoved it in my face. Then he looked at me and nodded, and though I respected him, I picked up the other pie and shoved it in his face. He played with kids like he was a kid himself. He was the consummate actor, even in his life. He always knew what people wanted and needed from him.
When I was a little older, he treated me as an adult, allowing me to sit at a table full of adults and dignitaries until two in the morning as they talked politics. He liked to share his life with us. In France, he made sure I went to horseback riding and polo lessons every day. We'd go to the racetrack, and he'd give me 50 francs — maybe $10 at the time — to bet on the races with him so I could feel the excitement of it.
I went to school internationally. So I would see him at Christmas vacation, Easter vacation, Ramadan. My way of seeing him every day was watching him in films. I think I've seen Funny Girl more than 200 times. My grandfather wasn't just Granddad. He was that actor in those films. He was Nicky Arnstein — that role was so much like he was. He loved the racehorses, the casinos. He was an intelligent gentleman, charming with women. So it was wonderful to be able to see him every day even when I was away at school. It's heart-wrenching to think that's now going to be the way I have to go back to watching him.
Sharif and his grandson Sharif Jr. in Dublin on March 6.
He also was a wonderful storyteller, and he'd share stories about what happened in front of the camera and behind the scenes — like his friendship with Peter O'Toole and what it was like living with him in the desert in the middle of nowhere for six months on Lawrence of Arabia, how they would get weekends off to go party.
He'd taken me a couple of times to the Academy Awards and the Vanity Fair party. And I'd received some offers for teenage roles, but he encouraged me to finish my schooling first. I think he knew that there's a certain sacrifice that comes with being an actor, being apart from us sometimes. I don't think he would have changed anything, but he always wanted more for his children and grandchildren. [When I did become an actor], he said to me: "I gave you my name, I gave you my looks. I'm not going to give you anything else. You have to do it entirely on your own."
We just finished a film together, Jim Sheridan's The Secret Scripture, and we were together in Dublin for four days. He played a former priest, and I played his grandson. He's sick and can't communicate well, and his grandson speaks for him. It was sort of what we were going through in real life at the time. But he had a particularly lucid moment when we arrived on set, and Jim said, "OK, I need you to play Irish with an Irish accent." I said to my grandfather, "Two Arabs are going to play Irish people?" He said, "Welcome to my life."
When he left Egypt to work abroad, Hollywood was very whitewashed. And so he got to play all these nationalities and religions on film — from an Arab to a Russian in Doctor Zhivago to a Jew in Brooklyn. He played Che Guevara and Genghis Khan. He really did transcend all those cultures. Funny Girl was my favorite of his films until he filmed Monsieur Ibrahim [in which he plays a Turkish shop owner who befriends a Jewish boy] because, as he changed in life, that sort of became who he was — talking about diversity, talking about religious tolerance. If you watch Funny Girl then watch Monsieur Ibrahim, you could almost see the arc of his life.