Casino, High Life,

Who shot the Sharif?

In these curious times, you might find yourself stumbling across interesting rabbit holes of information and entertainment. I found myself watching the wonderfully high-camp, high-seas and high-explosive Richard Harris action movie Juggernaut the other night, and I was struck by the performance of the Atlantic cruiser’s captain, Omar Sharif.

If ever there was a person who made acting look more effortless, while simultaneously making it all seem like a rollicking and profitable sideliner to fund a joyous punter’s lifestyle, there is no better than Sharif. Actually, perhaps David Niven but that’s it. Sharif simply oozes an old-world charm tempered with a love of risk and the opposite sex.

Omar was a huge star in his native Egypt before David Lean bestowed upon him two of the peachiest roles in movie history. The first to include cinema’s greatest ever entrance. The second, as a dazzlingly leading man to Julie Christie. However, Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago never catapulted Omar Sharif into the top rung of leading men. A tragedy, given he had more charm and life experience in his elegant bridge playing fingers than any or all of the actors to have played Bond (again, Niven may well be the exception to the rule!).

Rather than taking you down the Wikipedia biography lane, I would love to share with you the greatest Omar Sharif anecdote of all time. He dined out on it on US chat shows for years, but it was on an obscure Portuguese talk show that he was allowed the full 10 mins to tell the unabridged version. Anyone who has played the tables will understand and love this.

Our story starts in 1966, in the small ski resort of Saint Vincent in Italy. It lies somewhere on the road between Milan and Chamonix and is less well-known than its neighbour, Courmayeur, where the skiing is better.  There is still a casino there.  In fact, I’ve even been to the Casino de La Vallee. It’s rather modern, and not particularly ‘Omar Sharif’. That said, at the time of this story, the casino was part of the Grand Hotel Billia, which is still an excellent turn-of-the-century Grande hotel with a Belle Époque façade and is now adjacent to the new casino.

Sharif was there to present an Italian director with an award at an obscure film festival – clearly designed to promote this fashionable ski resort in the 60s. At the dinner, he was placed, presumably as guest of honour, next to a local Italian starlet. As was the case in 1966, Italian starlets were quite the thing. Sharif describes her in some detail, but I will leave that to your imagination.

Sharif was taken somewhat by the starlet and at the time, he was both extremely hot property and probably bristling with self-confidence. He immediately requested her company for an after-dinner drink. They headed for the hotel’s basement ‘discothèque’, and as Sharif puts it, “we danced a little and sat in a dark corner, we were flirting and kissing”. All seemed rosy for the Hollywood icon. Inevitably, he asked her to join him for a ‘little drink’, or a 2am nightcap, in his suite at the hotel.

She said no. He was shocked, he says himself. He thought he was “irresistible”. She had no reason other than the best reason; she simply didn’t go up to men’s rooms. Sharif was “crazy”. In modern parlance, this is the time to self-exclude from gambling, but Sharif decided the only way to get her off his mind was to ‘hit’ the tables and forget.

And so, Sharif finds himself in a small ski resort hotel casino putting all his money on the roulette. He was still so raw that he put it all on 29, a number he traditionally avoided. It came up, not once but twice and so he moved all to 14, and guess what? It came up again, and again. Sharif was in a haze. He didn’t want to win. He wanted to forget. But at some point, the black cloth came out, the traditional sign that the house is broke.

Sharif was paid in multiple small bankers’ cheques, as good as cash, in front of everyone. He was terrified that he would be robbed. It was Italy in the 60s after all, so he jumped in a taxi directly to Rome. He says Rome, the logical place would be Milan, but I will give him the benefit of the doubt. When the dust had settled, he had won $1,164,000. In today’s money, that is over $7m or £5m.

In the morning, Sharif counted the money and decided the starlet probably deserved a share, as it was her, after all, that had sent him to the wheel. 10% seemed fair. He was still a little raw from being rejected. Cash, however, was a little tasteless, so he called the concierge and they in turn called Interflora. He wanted $116,000 worth of flowers for the young lady.

Five tonnes of flowers duly arrived and were dispatched to Northern Italy and the starlet’s home, accompanied by a short note form Sharif: “Thank you, you saved me from the most expensive (insert something crude here) of my life”.

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