Omar Sharif, the Egyptian-born movie actor of virile good looks who became an international heartthrob in “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago,” and who made off-screen conquests as a bridge champion and consummate playboy, died July 10 at a hospital in Cairo. He was 83.
A son, Tarek Sharif, announced in May 2015 that his father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Omar Sharif’s agent, Steve Kenis, confirmed the death and said the cause was a heart attack.
Born into an affluent family with Lebanese and Syrian roots, Mr. Sharif developed an affinity for acting at an English-style private school in Cairo modeled on Eton. With his macho build and soulful appeal — liquid brown eyes, cleft chin, brilliant, gap-toothed smile and (later) a rakish mustache — Mr. Sharif quickly found a place for himself in the thriving Egyptian film industry.
He caused a sensation in one of his first movies, “The Blazing Sun” (1954), in which he kissed 23-year-old Faten Hamama, a popular Egyptian actress whose reputation for unsullied beauty earned her comparisons to Shirley Temple. They wed they next year — after he converted from Greek Catholicism to her Islamic faith — and they prospered for years as one of the most glamorous couples of Arab cinema.
Mr. Sharif’s career ascended to even higher levels when British director David Lean cast him as tribal chief Sherif Ali in “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), an epic about the British adventurer T.E. Lawrence and his efforts to unite Arab tribesmen against the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
Actor Omar Sharif in “Doctor Zhivago.” (Anonymous/AP) The film made a star of the previously obscure Peter O’Toole in the title role, became a commercial juggernaut and won seven Academy Awards, including best picture and best director.
“Lawrence of Arabia” also provided Mr. Sharif, making his Western screen debut, with a spectacular entrance. Cloaked in black, on camelback, he materializes in the shimmering desert heat, as if in a mirage.
When Lawrence’s Bedouin guide breaches a desert code by drinking from Sherif Ali’s oasis, the tribal chief cuts him down in a blast of rifle fire. “He was nothing,” Sherif Ali later explains to Lawrence. “The well is everything.” Mr. Sharif, who learned to ride a camel for the part, received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.
Critics found him an intriguing blend intensity and charm. The actor spoke derisively about many of his subsequent movies — “rubbish,” he later called them.
But he retained a strong affection for “Lawrence of Arabia” because of the bonds he formed with O’Toole, a companion in drinking and carousing, and Lean, whom he admired for the audacity of his vision. “I also never thought anyone would go to see the film — three hours and 40 minutes of desert, and no girls!” he later told the London Independent.
Mr. Sharif collaborated again with Lean as the title character in “Doctor Zhivago” (1965), based on Boris Pasternak’s novel about an idealistic physician-poet amid war and revolution in early 20th century Russia. The movie was a box-office smash, but many reviewers felt that the film’s emphasis on Zhivago’s doomed affair with Lara (Julie Christie), no matter how attractive the protagonists or lushly romantic the theme song, was little more than a banal love story.
Mr. Sharif, who spoke English, French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and Greek, continued to play strong, masculine roles across the ethnic spectrum.
He was an Armenian king in “The Fall of the Roman Empire” (1964), the title conqueror of “Genghis Khan” (1965) and a Yugoslav patriot in “The Yellow Rolls-Royce” (1965).
In “The Night of the Generals” (1967), a Nazi-era thriller that reunited him with O’Toole, Mr. Sharif was a German military intelligence officer hunting down a serial killer of prostitutes.
The same year, he played a medieval prince to Sophia Loren’s peasant girl in the panned comedy “More Than a Miracle.” Mr. Sharif’s movie roles became increasingly wobbly and beyond his admittedly modest range.
While starring as an Austrian archduke in “Mayerling” (1968), a historical romantic tragedy co-starring Catherine Deneuve, he told an interviewer: “If a director wants Omar Sharif to play a part, he gets Omar Sharif, not the reincarnation of some nutty prince.
I play Rudolph like I play all my parts. . . . All I care about is getting to the studio on time and remembering my lines.
” He was painfully miscast as the Argentine-born revolutionary in “Che!” (1969) and as Nicky Arnstein, the Jewish gangster boyfriend of showgirl Fanny Brice (Barbra Streisand) in “Funny Girl” (1968).
News of his romance with Streisand onscreen — and off — caused a backlash against Mr. Sharif in Egypt amid the Arab-Israeli War. There was a media campaign to revoke his citizenship.
“You think Cairo was upset?” Streisand later was said to have quipped. “You should’ve seen the letter I got from my Aunt Rose.” Mr. Sharif was ungallant about most of his affairs, which by many accounts included dalliances with actresses including Ingrid Bergman, Tuesday Weld, Barbara Bouchet, Diane McBain and Anouk Aimée (his co-star in the 1969 bomb “The Appointment”). “One month here.
One month there,” Mr. Sharif later said. “When you’re working in films, you find a lady and you flirt with her instead of being bored.” He also played bridge to pass time on the movie set.
Once ranking among the 50 best players in the world, he formed the Omar Sharif Bridge Circus to perform exhibition matches before such spectators as the shah of Iran. Mr. Sharif shared a byline on a syndicated bridge column for decades, first with Charles Goren and later Tannah Hirsch.
Asked why he spent so much time at bridge when he could have been making movies, he once replied: “The real question is why I spend so much time making movies when I could be playing bridge.” Early interest in theater Omar Sharif, a name he adopted for the movies, was born Michel Demitri Shalhoub on April 10, 1932, in the seaport of Alexandria.
He grew up in Cairo, where his parents were part of a social circle that included King Farouk, a cardplaying companion of his mother’s. She sent Mr. Sharif at 10 to private school, mostly because he was chubby, he told the London Guardian. “My mother, who didn’t speak any English at all, said: ‘I know, the only thing is to put him in an English boarding school.
The food will be so horrible that he’ll lose his weight.’ ” The school also had a theater, which piqued his interest in dramatics. After graduation, he played billiards and professional soccer and spent a brief, miserable spell working for his father’s precious-wood business.
He chanced into an audition for a film under the direction of a friend and starring Hamama. With his boost in stature after making “Lawrence of Arabia,” Mr. Sharif asked for a separation from Hamama and eventually a divorce because he lacked the willpower to remain faithful as a major star in the Swinging ’60s.
“It was Sodom and Gomorrah,” he explained. Besides Tarek Sharif, his son with Hamama, survivors include a son from a New Year’s Eve indiscretion with a reporter in Rome in the late 1960s.
He was not close to that child, telling the
publication Guernica in 2012, “Sperm for me is not fatherhood.”
Mr. Sharif’s movie career went into decline starting in the 1970s with a range of forgettable fare he took to pay off his gambling debts.
They included “Juggernaut,” “The Tamarind Seed” and “Oh! Heavenly Dog,” the last starring Chevy Chase and Benji. Bypass surgery in the early 1990s forced him to quit his 100-cigarette-a day smoking habit. Mr. Sharif had brief burst of acclaim in “Monsieur Ibrahim” (2003), an art-house film about a Muslim shopkeeper (Mr. Sharif) in Paris who befriends a Jewish teenage boy in 1960s Paris. He won a best actor César, the French equivalent of the Oscar. Off-screen, he often was described as mercurial and found himself at the center of altercations and ugly disputes.
He was fined in 2003 for head-butting a French police officer at a casino. Two years later, he brawled with a Beverly Hills parking attendant.
He pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery and was sent to anger-management counselling.
In 2011, he was caught on camera slapping a woman at a film festival in Qatar. In later years, his waning health and cash flow forced him to relinquish certain pleasures.
He stopped living in the luxury hotels of Europe. He also gave up bridge, gambling, breeding racehorses and squiring beautiful women. “It’s very bad to underperform, as it were, like in bridge,” he told the Guardian in 2004.
“The reason I quit is because I wasn’t as good as I used to be. And now it’s the same thing with girls, so why the aggravation?”