While he was perhaps the best-known actor to hail from his native Egypt, in the 1960s and ’70s audiences saw him play an Arab warrior, a German general, a Russian doctor, a Jewish-American gambler, and an Argentine revolutionary, among other roles. Throughout his nearly 60-year career, however, the mesmerizing stare and commanding screen presence of Academy Award nominee Omar Sharif–who passed away last week from a heart attack at age 83–remained constant.
He was born Michel Demitri Shalhoub in Alexandria in April of 1932, the son of a well-to-do lumber merchant of Greek/Lebanese descent. His lifelong love of card games, most notably bridge, came courtesy of his society hostess mother, who regularly partnered with King Farouk when the then-monarch visited the family’s home. After specializing in physics and math at Cairo University, he went into his father’s lumber business but was drawn into acting and studied at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Returning home to Egypt and taking the name Omar El-Sharif, he made his film debut in 1954’s Devil of the Sahara. It was his second picture that year–the drama Siraa Fil-Wadi, also known as Struggle in the Valley–that proved to be a turning point in the young actor’s professional and personal lives, as he was teamed with one of Egyptian cinema’s most popular actresses, Faten Hamama. The pair’s on-screen chemistry (they ultimately made seven movies together) was reflected in real life, and they married in 1955, Sharif converting from Greek Catholicism to Islam.
In 1961 Sharif, by now a top leading man in his home country, caught the attention of director David Lean, who cast the charismatic actor as Arab warrior Sherif Ali in his epic WWI-era biodrama Lawrence of Arabia. Making a memorable screen entrance riding into view along the desert horizon, Sharif earned “overnight” global fame and a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for his first English-language turn. Once Hollywood discovered him and found that–like his contemporary Yul Brynner–the polyglot performer could play a variety of nationalities, they put Sharif’s talents to work in such roles as a second-century Armenian tribal chief (1964’s The Fall of the Roman Empire), a 1930s Spanish priest (Behold a Pale Horse, also ’64) and a WWII Yugoslav freedom fighter (The Yellow Rolls-Royce, ’64).
1965 opened with him playing the title role of the legendary Mongol warlord Genghis Khan, then portraying an Arab sheik alongside Anthony Quinn as Khan’s grandson Kublai and Host Buchholz as Marco Polo in the French/Italian adventure Marco the Magnificent. More notably, that same year he re-teamed with Lean as the physician/poet caught up in the turmoil of the Russian Reovlution in Lean’s sweeping adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. Co-starring Alec Guinness, Rod Steiger and Julie Christie as Zhivago’s star-crossed lover Lara, the film would pick up 10 Oscar nominations…although Sharif, who won a Golden Globe for his performance, was shut out by the Academy. Two years later, another Lawrence of Arabia reunion occurred when Omar and Peter O’Toole played German army officers on opposite sides of a murder investigation in the WWII suspenser The Night of the Generals. Later in 1967 he was a wayward prince who falls for a peasant gal–but who can blame him when said commoner is none other than Sophia Loren?–in the romantic comedy More Than a Miracle.
In a role that raised more than a few eyebrows in his native country and the Arab world, Sharif portrayed gambler/con man Nicky Arnstein, husband of comic actress and Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice (Barbra Streisand), in the hit 1968 musical Funny Girl. Concerning the controversy over her on-screen love interest, Streisand once famously commented, “You think the Egyptians are angry? You should see the letter I got from my Aunt Rose!” That same year Sharif co-starred an Austrian nobleman with Catherine Deneuve in the historical melodrama Mayerling. 1969 found him as a treasure-seeking Mexican outlaw who abducts lawman Gregory Peck in the western actioner Mackenna’s Gold, and as Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Latin American communist rebel whose image launched a million collegiate T-shirt sales, in the box office flop Che!, co-starring a similarly miscast Jack Palance as Fidel Castro.
As the 1970s began, lead roles in Hollywood were becoming scarcer for Sharif, who was separating from wife Hamama (he later described her as his “one true love” and never remarried) and devoting more of his free time to gaming. “I’d rather be playing bridge than making a bad movie,” he once said in an interview. but after supporting roles in such ’70s costumers as The Last Valley, The Mysterious Island (as Captain Nemo), and Ashanti, some critics commented that he managed to find time to do both. In 1974-75 he co-starred with Julie Andrews as a Russian agent and the British government worker he tries to seduce, respectively, in Blake Edwards’ romance/thriller The Tamarind Seed; with Richard Harris and Anthony Hopkins as a luxury liner captain in the nautical nail-biter Juggernaut; and he reprised his role as Nicky Arnstein alongside Streisand in Funny Lady.
By 1980, however, Omar was playing opposite the likes of Chevy Chase and Benji in the family-aimed misfire Oh Heavenly Dog and James Coburn and Bruce Boxleitner in the Sting-like caper comedy The Baltimore Bullet (the actor made a more memorable comedic impression in 1984’s Top Secret!, a zany spy spoof from the creators of Airplane! During the 1980s and ’90s Sharif made guest appearances in TV films and mini-series (The Far Pavilions, Peter the Great and Gulliver’s Travels, to name a few) along with such big-screen fare as Green Ice (1981) and The 13th Warrior (1999). He also co-wrote several books and a syndicated newspaper column on bridge playing and was a habitué at casinos and racetracks in Europe and America, claiming once, “I was a lonely man living out of suitcases in hotels, and when you arrive in a new place and you don’t know anyone, the only place where you can go if you’re a well-known person to have dinner alone is a casino.”
One of Sharif’s final big-screen roles was also one of his best, that of a Muslim grocery store owner in 1960s Paris who takes an aimless Jewish teenager (Pierre Boulanger) under his wing in 2003’s Monsieur Ibrahim. He returned to the desert sands to play a 19th-century Arab sheik in the 2004 equestrian drama Hidalgo, and was the narrator of the 2008 Stone Age saga 10,000 B.C. His last feature film appearance came in a 2013 French/Moroccan seriocomedy, Rock the Casbah.
Looking back on his career in a ’90s New York Times interview, Sharif said, “Look, I had it good and bad. I did three films that are classics, which is very rare in itself, and they were all made within five years.” His Hollywood heyday may have been brief, but Omar Sharif’s impact on global cinema as one of the first Arab world superstars cannot be overlooked.