Omar Sharif starred in epic films like "Doctor Zhivago" and "Lawrence of Arabia"
Later in life, he became top-notch bridge player
Omar Sharif, the dashing actor whose career included star turns in “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago,” died Friday. He was 83.
The Egyptian-born actor suffered a heart attack this afternoon in Cairo, according to his agent, Steve Kenis. Egyptian state media report that Sharif had been in the hospital for a month.
Antonio Banderas, who starred with Sharif in 1999’s “The 13th Warrior,” expressed his sorrow on Twitter.
“My great friend Omar Sharif has passed away. I will always miss him. He was one of the best,” Banderas posted.
In his prime, Sharif – with his dark eyes, debonair demeanor and exotic accent – was considered one of the most handsome men on the planet, his looks getting as much attention as his acting ability.
“When he walked on the ‘Zhivago’ set in Spain, I took one look and said, ‘I can’t act with that man. He’s too gorgeous!’ ” one of his “Zhivago” co-stars, Geraldine Chaplin, told The New York Times in 1965.
In the ‘90s, he had both a perfume and a brand of cigarettes named after him.
But he could also be a formidable actor, earning an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in “Lawrence of Arabia” and winning Golden Globes for it and “Zhivago.”
Sharif was already an established star in the Middle East when he was cast in the role as Sherif Ali Ibn El Karish in director David Lean’s epic 1962 production of “Arabia.” The film, which was also the movie debut of Peter O’Toole, won seven Oscars, including best picture, and is still considered one of the greatest of all time.
It made Sharif a worldwide name, about which he had mixed feelings, he said in 1995.
“I don’t know if I wouldn’t have been a happier person if I had never even made ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ or become internationally famous,” he said. “I was in Egypt. I had a home. I had a wife. I had a kid. I might have had more. It might have been good. But then again, it might have been terrible, I don’t know.”
In ‘the Hollywood of the Middle East’
Sharif was born Michael Demitri Shalhoub in Alexandria, Egypt, on April 10, 1932. He grew up in Cairo, the son of a lumber merchant.
He wanted to be an actor from a young age and performed in theatrical productions as a teenager. In his early 20s, he was cast in an Egyptian film opposite actress Faten Hamama. The 1954 film, whose Arabic title translates to “Struggle in the Valley,” made him a star; the next year, Hamama became his wife. The two were married until 1974.
In a 2007 interview with CNN, he remembered a thriving industry.
“When I started in the Egyptian film industry, we used to produce about 120 films a year,” he recalled. “All the Arab(ic)-speaking films came from Egypt. We were the Hollywood of the Middle East.”
In the early ‘60s, Lean cast him in “Lawrence.” Originally, Sharif had a different role, but when Lean was unable to get his other choices – including Horst Buchholz and Alain Delon – Sharif won the part of Sherif Ali. His slow-building entrance, from a far-off dot in the desert distance in Lean’s widescreen masterpiece, is one of the most arresting in cinema.
Lean could be difficult, Sharif said, but the pair got along fine.
“He hated actors, but he loved me. I don’t know why, because I didn’t know myself what I was going to do, and the first shot I had to make, I spent the whole night to practice it for the next day – my first shot in the film. And he knew about this, and he loved me for it,” he told NPR in 2012.
Lean cast Sharif again in his next epic, 1965’s “Doctor Zhivago.” This time he had the lead, as an altruistic Russian physician who romances a wife (Chaplin) and a lover (Julie Christie) before and after the Russian Revolution.
“Sharif, largely through expressions of indignation, compassion and tenderness, makes the character very believable,” wrote Variety’s A.D. Murphy.
The film was an even bigger hit than “Arabia,” making more than $100 million at the box office – at a time when that was an almost unbelievable sum – and finishing second to “The Sound of Music” for the year. Though nominated for 10 Academy Awards, it was also an also-ran to “Music” for best picture.
Moving to bridge
However, Sharif, now one of the biggest stars in the world, had just one more notable hit: 1968’s “Funny Girl,” opposite Barbra Streisand. The film brought him some woe; his films were banned in Egypt because of his onscreen relationship with Streisand, a Jewish woman.
As the ‘60s turned into the ‘70s, he had started growing indifferent to acting. Though there were some good turns – 1974’s “The Tamarind Seed” and 1975’s “Funny Lady” both did respectably – others were outright bombs.
One film, 1969’s “Che!” in which he played Che Guevara, was named as one of the “50 Worst Films of All Time” in a 1977 book. He also appeared in 1980’s “Oh Heavenly Dog” and 1981’s “Inchon.”
“Only bad films since 1972, (197)3. I’m thinking of really bad,” he told the UK’s Guardian. “To learn bad dialogue is so difficult and so boring, and to work with a stupid director who tells you to do the wrong thing, et cetera, it’s just unbearable.”
He admitted that, by then, he was putting more interest into his other passion: the card game bridge, at which he was an expert player. He wrote a regular column, wrote books and hosted a computer video about the game.
“I refused in my life many films because they happened at the same time as an important tournament,” he told the Guardian. Not that he was always happy with that choice, calling it “stupid.”
He still popped up in occasional productions. He was in the parody “Top Secret!” created by the “Airplane!” team and appeared as the Sorcerer in a production of “Gulliver’s Travels.”
He won a Cesar – the French Oscar – for 2003’s “Monsieur Ibrahim,” a French film about a Muslim who becomes friends with a young Jew.
“I thought it was the right moment to make it, to make a little statement about loving each other and being able to live with each other,” he told the Guardian.
His life wasn’t the romantic lark his image suggested. He acknowledged some issues with gambling – the Guardian noted that he lost £200,000 in one 2003 experience that concluded with Sharif head-butting a police officer – and told Guernica magazine in 1996 that he lived a “sedate” life.
“I don’t go out a lot,” he said. “I’ve always done it. I’ve never had a riotous-living sort of life.”
Romantic? That’s what he aspired to, he said.
“It’s a beautiful word,” he said. “I like it. I think probably I’m sentimental, which is not a beautiful word, but I want to graduate to being romantic.”
Sharif is survived by a son, Tarek, and two grandchildren. He acknowledged a second son out of wedlock in various interviews.
CNN’s Hannah Calder contributed to this story.