Egyptian-born actor Omar Sharif dies

Friday 17/07/2015

Cairo - Omar Sharif, the Egyptian-born actor with dark, soulful eyes who soared to international stardom in movie epics Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, has died at age 83.

Sharif died July 10th of a heart attack in a Cairo hospital, his long-time agent, London-based Steve Kenis, and the head of Egypt’s The­atrical Arts Guild, Ashraf Zaki, told the Associated Press. The actor had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Sharif was Egypt’s biggest box-office star when director David Lean cast him in 1962’s Lawrence of Ara­bia. But he was not the director’s first choice to play Sherif Ali, the tribal leader with whom the enig­matic T.E. Lawrence teams up with to help lead the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire.

Lean had hired another actor but dropped him because his eyes weren’t the right colour. The film’s producer, Sam Spiegel, went to Cairo to search for a replacement and found Sharif. After passing a screen test that proved he was fluent in English, he got the job.

His entrance in the movie is stun­ning: He is seen in the distance, a speck in swirling desert sand. As he draws closer, he emerges first as a black figure on a galloping camel, slowly transforming into a hand­some, dark-eyed figure with a gap-tooth smile.

The film brought him a support­ing-actor Academy Award nomina­tion and international stardom.

Three years later, Sharif demon­strated his versatility, playing the leading role of a doctor-poet who endures decades of Russian history, including World War I and the Bol­shevik revolution, surviving on his art and his love for his beloved Lara in Doctor Zhivago.

Lean’s adaptation of the Boris Pasternak novel had a rocky begin­ning in its first US release. Attendance was sparse and reviews were nega­tive. After MGM removed it from theatres and Lean re-edited the sprawling tale, it was re-released and became a box-office hit. Still, Sharif never thought it was as good as it could have been.

“It’s sentimental. Too much of that music,” he once said, referring to Maurice Jarre’s luscious Oscar-winning score.

Although Sharif never achieved that level of success again, he remained a sought-after actor for many years, partly because of his proficiency at playing different nationalities.

He was Argentine-born revolu­tionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Che!, Italian Marco Polo in Marco the Magnificent and Mongol leader Geng­his Khan in Genghis Khan. He was a German officer in The Night of the Generals, an Austrian prince in May­erling and a Mexican outlaw in Mack­enna’s Gold.

He was also the Jewish gambler Nick Arnstein opposite Barbra Stre­isand’s Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. The 1968 film was banned in his native Egypt because he was cast as a Jew.

In his middle years Sharif appeared in such films as The Pink Panther Strikes Again, Oh Heavenly Dog!, The Baltimore Bullet and others he dis­missed as “rubbish”.

In 2003 he accepted a role in the French film Monsieur Ibrahim, por­traying a Muslim shopkeeper in Paris who adopts a Jewish boy. The role won him the Cesar, the French equivalent of the Oscar, and he fol­lowed with Hidalgo, a lively western starring Viggo Mortensen. In that one he was a desert sheik who duels 11 assailants with a sword. His career was back on track.

Born Michael Chalhoub on April 10, 1932 in Egypt’s Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria, Sharif was the son of Christian Syrian-Lebanese parents.

After working three years at his father’s lumber company, he fulfilled his long-time ambition to become a movie actor, appearing in nearly two dozen Egyptian films under the name Omar el-Sharif.

His fame increased when he mar­ried Faten Hamama, Egypt’s reign­ing movie queen and screen beauty, in 1955. Some of Egypt’s most iconic film posters are of Hamama and Sharif. Sharif converted to Islam to marry her and they had a son, Tarek. They divorced in 1974 and Sharif never remarried. Hamama died in January.

“He was a phenomena; a one of a kind. Everyone had a dream to be like Omar Sharif. No one will be like him,” Yousra, Egypt’s most well-known actress for much of the past 30 years and a close friend of Sha­rif, told the AP after his death was announced.

“I don’t think we are going to ever have someone like him,” she said, describing him as “classy” and comparing him to a diamond that is “clean-cut”.

Sharif’s son Tarek revealed in May that his father had Alz­heimer’s disease. Zaki said Sharif had stopped eating and drinking in the last three days before his death.

Sharif was romantically linked with a number of Hol­lywood co-stars over the years. In 2004, he acknowledged that he also had another son, who was born after a one-night stand with an interviewer.

Away from the movies, Sharif was a world-class bridge player who for many years wrote a newspaper column on the game. He quit bridge in later years, however, when he gave up gambling.

Sharif spent much of his later years in Cairo and at the Royal Moncean Hotel in Paris.

“When you live alone and you’re not young, it’s good to live in a hotel,” he told a reporter in 2005. “If you feel lonely, you can go down to the bar. I know all the people who work here and who come here regularly. The room is done for you and you don’t have to worry about anything,” he said. “If you feel anything, health-wise, you can call the concierge and tell them to bring all the ambulances in Paris.”