Thursday, July 16, 2015
Sharif, who spoke Arabic, English, Greek, French, Spanish and Italian, was often cast as a foreigner of some sort. He bridled at travel restrictions imposed during the reign of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, leading to self-exile in Europe. The estrangement this caused led to an amicable divorce from his wife, the iconic Egyptian actress Faten Hamama, for whom he had converted to Islam. He was a lifelong horse racing enthusiast, and at one time ranked among the world's top contract bridge players.
Omar Sharif, the dashing, Egyptian-born actor who was one of the biggest movie stars in the world in the 1960s, with memorable roles in “Dr. Zhivago,” “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Funny Girl,” has died. He was 83.
Sharif suffered a heart attack on Friday afternoon in a hospital in Cairo, his agent said.
It was announced in May that he had Alzheimer’s disease.
With the global success of David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” starring Peter O’Toole, in 1962, Sharif became the first Arab actor to achieve worldwide fame, thanks to his charismatic presence in the epic film — and the Oscar nomination he drew because of it.
In its wake he very quickly became a busy Hollywood actor: Sharif made three films in 1964, including “Behold a Pale Horse” and “The Yellow Rolls Royce,” and three in 1965, including his first lead role in an English-language production, as the title character in Lean’s “Dr. Zhivago,” for which he won a Golden Globe.
Thanks to his gentle continental accent and dark but hard-to-place good looks, the actor was not ethnically typecast: In “Behold a Pale Horse” he played a Spaniard, in “Zhivago” a Russian, in “Genghis Khan” a Mongol, in “Funny Girl” a New York Jewish gambler and in “The Night of the Generals,” a German major during WWII.
Nevertheless, there was no little controversy about his role in “Funny Girl”: When 1967’s Six Day War between Israel and Arab countries including Egypt occurred, Columbia execs considered replacing Sharif; later, when a still depicting a love scene between the actor and Barbra Streisand was published, the Egyptian press began a movement to revoke Sharif’s citizenship.
Streisand remembered her costar in a statement: “Omar was my first leading man in the movies. He was handsome, sophisticated and charming. He was a proud Egyptian and in some people’s eyes, the idea of casting him in ‘Funny Girl’ was considered controversial. Yet somehow, under the direction of William Wyler, the romantic chemistry between Nicky Arnstein and Fanny Brice transcended stereotypes and prejudice. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to work with Omar, and I’m profoundly sad to hear of his passing.”
Other significant late-’60s films for the actor included J. Lee Thompson Western “MacKenna’s Gold,” with Gregory Peck and Telly Savalas, and tragic European political love story “Mayerling,” in which Sharif was paired with Catherine Deneuve.
During the 1970s Sharif remained busy, but there were fewer notable projects. Standouts included Blake Edwards thriller “The Tamarind Seed,” with Julie Andrew, and Richard Lester’s thriller “Juggernaut.”
Since the mid-1980s Sharif returned sporadically to Egyptian cinema, where he got his start.
In 2003 Sharif won acclaim for his role in Francois Dupeyron’s “Monsieur Ibrahim” as a Turkish Muslim shop owner who becomes an avuncular figure for a Jewish boy in Paris. Although the role was perceived as representing something of a career resurgence for the actor, he had in fact been working regularly over the previous decades in film and TV and continued to do so after “Ibrahim.”
The same year he starred in the 23-episode French anthology TV series “Petits mythes urbains,” in which he played a mysterious cab driver; he also wrote for the series.
He had a substantial role in 2004’s “Hidalgo,” with Viggo Mortensen, and appeared in ABC’s 2006 “Ten Commandments” miniseries and NBC’s 2009 “The Last Templar” miniseries. On the bigscreen he was the narrator for Roland Emmerich’s “10,000 BC.” He also worked a great deal in film and TV projects not distributed in the U.S.
Omar Sharif, the Egyptian actor who rode out of the desert in the 1962 screen epic “Lawrence of Arabia” into a glamorous if brief reign as an international star in films like “Doctor Zhivago” and “The Night of the Generals,” died on Friday in Cairo. He was 83.
His death, at a hospital, was caused by a heart attack, said his agent, Steve Kenis.
Mr. Sharif — who later became as well known for his mastery of bridge as he was for his acting — was a commanding, darkly handsome presence onscreen. He was multilingual as well, and comfortable in almost any role or cultural setting.
He had appeared in a number of Egyptian films before the British director David Lean added him to the cast of “Lawrence of Arabia,” a freewheeling depiction of the real-life exploits of the British adventurer T. E. Lawrence, who led Arab fighters in a series of battles against Turkish occupiers. Peter O’Toole starred in the title role.
Mr. Sharif played the Arab warrior Sherif Ali, who joins forces with
Lawrence. The scene depicting his arrival is widely regarded as a classic piece of cinematic art. In it he appears at first as a tiny speck on the desert horizon and then slowly approaches, until he materializes into a figure riding a camel. Mr. Sharif’s performance, in his first English-language film, brought him an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor.
The 1960s proved to be Mr. Sharif’s best, busiest and most visible decade in Hollywood. In quick succession he appeared in “The Fall of the Roman Empire” (1964), as a king of ancient Armenia; “Behold a Pale Horse” (1964), as a priest during the Spanish Civil War; “The Yellow Rolls-Royce” (1965), as a Yugoslav patriot intent on saving his country from the Nazis; “Genghis Khan” (1965), as the conquering Mongol leader; “Doctor Zhivago” (1965), as a Russian physician-poet whose world is torn apart by war; “The Night of the Generals” (1967), as a German intelligence officer; “Funny Girl” (1968), as a shifty gambler, and — in a rare early-career misstep — the critical and box-office disaster “Che!” (1969), as the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, opposite Jack Palance as Fidel Castro.
There were more films to come, but it was Mr. Sharif’s performance in “Doctor Zhivago” that is generally considered the high point of his career. Adapted from the novel by Boris Pasternak, the film was a sweeping portrait of war and rebellion in Czarist Russia. Mr. Sharif, in the role of the sensitive, brooding Zhivago, plunges into a doomed love affair with another man’s wife, played by Julie Christie, as violence engulfs their lives.
World War II was the setting for “The Night of the Generals,” a drama about the Nazi high command in Warsaw that reunited Mr. Sharif and Mr. O’Toole. Mr. Sharif played a junior officer assigned to investigate a trio of generals, one of whom (Mr. O’Toole) has been killing prostitutes.
Mr. Sharif appeared in dozens of movies after the 1960s, but his film career was clearly headed downhill. He liked to gamble, became an aficionado of horse racing and spent more and more time playing competitive bridge. An expert on the game, he wrote a syndicated bridge column and a number of books on the subject, including “Omar Sharif’s Life in Bridge” (1983). His autobiography, “The Eternal Male,” written with Marie-Thérèse Guinchard, was published in 1977.
He was philosophical about the ups and downs of his career. “Look, I had it good and bad,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in 1995. “I did three films that are classics, which is very rare in itself, and they were all made within five years.”
He attributed his change of film fortune to what he called “the cultural revolution” at the end of the 1960s. “There was a rise of young, talented directors,” he added, “but they were making films about their own societies. There was no more room for a foreigner, so suddenly there were no more parts.”
There were in fact at least a few parts. Mr. Sharif continued to appear in films, many made for television. In “Pleasure Palace,” shown on CBS in 1980, he was a European playboy who comes to Las Vegas for a no-holds-barred gambling duel with a millionaire Texan. In the 1995 A&E film “Catherine the Great,” starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, he was a Russian prince.
His later films included “Monsieur Ibrahim” (2003), set in 1960s Paris, in which he played an aging Muslim grocer who befriends a rudderless Jewish teenager; and “Hidalgo” (2004), as an Arab sheik who invites an American cowboy (Viggo Mortensen) to participate in a survival race across the desert. His most recent film role was in the French family drama “Rock the Casbah” (2013).
Sharif said he landed his breakout role in "Lawrence" simply because he spoke English. "They looked at photographs of all the Egyptian actors, and David said if he speaks English, bring him here," he recalled to The Times in 2012.
Sharif's performance in the film earned him two Golden Globe awards and an Oscar nomination for supporting actor. He also forged an enduring friendship with O'Toole.
Three years later, Sharif played the title role in Lean's adaptation of "Doctor Zhivago," the Boris Pasternak novel about a sensitive Russian poet-doctor who finds himself torn between his wife and the love of his life against the backdrop of World War I and the Russian Revolution.
Sharif won another Golden Globe and reportedly received 3,000 proposals of marriage after the film debuted.
Lawrence of Arabia made him a truly international star. The film earned seven Oscars and nominations for both Sharif and his co-star, Peter O'Toole.
He followed this with another intense portrayal, that of the eponymous Doctor Zhivago, in Lean's 1965 Russian epic, based on the novel by Boris Pasternak.
With his black eyes and famous gap-toothed smile, Sharif was depicted as a type of Rudolf Valentino of the 1960s.
I don't know what women are attracted to but certainly I have no notion about having any sex appeal
He later called this a triumph of hype over accuracy, but he certainly escorted some of the world's most glamorous women.
Sharif admitted to falling madly for his co-stars, among them Ingrid Bergman, Catherine Deneuve and Ava Gardner.
But, disillusioned with the regime of Colonel Nasser in Egypt, he began spending more time away from his native country.
The Egyptian authorities were also angered by Sharif's role in Funny Girl, alongside co-star Barbra Streisand.
On the whole, though, nothing he subsequently did on screen could compare to that sparklingly authentic first appearance, on a camel as an Arab chief in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia.
It brought him a nomination for an Academy award, and leading parts in many other epics as assorted princes and warriors, though artistically speaking he seemed happiest in the company of, or pining for, beautiful women.
Sharif was a civilised man with cosmopolitan tastes and his first love was often said to be bridge. He found it hard, given the quality of most of his films, to take them as seriously as the pleasures of contract bridge; and by the 197Os he had begun to win as much acclaim and admiration for his poise and prowess at the bridge table as for his conquests on the screen.
Off it he also famously conducted a series of well-chronicled courtships of leading ladies, former leading ladies or leading ladies from other films, notably Miss Streisand, Catherine Deneuve, and Dyan Cannon.
“I definitely want to do mainly theatre now,” he would say when one of his blockbusters was released to little critical acclaim, “or two weeks in a film for a remarkable amount of money.” In 1983 he starred in a West End revival of The Sleeping Prince.
He was a syndicated columnist on bridge for various papers and periodicals and apart from writing a book on bridge also made an instructional video.
Sharif was instantly elevated by this debut into a major box-office figure, and went on to star in a succession of big-budget films during the 1960s, most notably the contrasting blockbuster hits Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Funny Girl (1968), as perhaps the last of the “exotic” Hollywood heartthrobs in line of descent from Rudolph Valentino.
This situation, however, proved comparatively short-lived. Almost like the protagonist of a Victorian novel, Sharif was overtaken by his own success, to the extent that in order to service the debts incurred by gambling and a playboy lifestyle, he was thrown back on accepting any work that came his way, and entered a downward spiral into trivial and meretricious movies.
He was born Michel Chalhoub in Alexandria, the son of well-to-do Lebanese-Syrian Christians, Claire (nee Saada) and Joseph Chalhoub, and educated at a private school and at Cairo University. He worked briefly and reluctantly in his father’s lumber business but fell for the lure of acting, and was delighted when a friend, the director Youssef Chahine, offered him a role in the film Struggle in the Valley (1954). The female star was Faten Hamama, who was greatly taken by her leading man and in the same year became his wife, Sharif converting to Islam in the process. The marriage lasted for 20 years and the couple had a son, Tarek, who was to make a brief appearance in Doctor Zhivago in the guise of Yuri Zhivago’s childhood self.
Sharif became established as a principal figure in Egyptian cinema and also starred in the French-backed Goha (1958), which afforded him wider recognition, if only in the arthouses.
But it was his selection by the producer Sam Spiegel and the director David Lean to play Sherif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia that proved the turning point in his career. As he later observed: “Maybe if I hadn’t made Lawrence, I would have gone on living in Cairo and had five children and lots of grandchildren.” He blamed the eventual failure of his marriage on the simple fact of his constant absences in Europe and the US.
The role of Sherif Ali was pivotal in the film’s dramatic scheme, and Sharif’s swarthy, romantic aura was played off to great effect against the blue-eyed blondness of O’Toole’s Lawrence. The two became close friends while making the film. Sharif’s performance won him Golden Globe awards as best supporting actor and most promising newcomer, as well as an Academy Award nomination, though he ruefully recalled that he had signed a contract with the studio that netted him only £8,000 for this and several subsequent appearances.
Fluent in English and French, he worked steadily for the next few years, though as an all-purpose “foreigner”, mainstream cinema never having been especially concerned about precise ethnicity. Thus he played a Spanish priest in Behold a Pale Horse (1964), the title role in a comic-strip historical extravaganza, Genghis Khan (1965), a Yugoslav partisan in The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964), and even, a little later, a Nazi officer, complete with blond-streaked hair, in The Night of the Generals (1967).
But it was as the Russian hero of Lean’s Doctor Zhivago that he achieved his best-remembered screen role, a brooding, magnetic presence, even if some critics felt that the performance, like the whole film, manifested a degree of shallowness.
There was no doubt about his box-office stature, though, and it was revealing that the film version of the musical Funny Girl, which in the theatre had been an unabashed vehicle for Barbra Streisand, was marketed on the basis of her co-starring with Sharif. As the shady gambler Nicky Arnstein, by whom Fanny Brice (Streisand) was enslaved, Sharif was the essence of the homme fatal, and even weighed in with a couple of song numbers. There were rumours at the time that the stars’ relationship had blossomed off-screen too, a notion that was ill received in Sharif’s native land in the light of Streisand’s pro-Israeli sympathies.
Sharif later admitted that he had briefly imagined himself in love with Streisand, and also recalled being smitten by Ava Gardner, his co-star in Mayerling (1968), in which he brought a suitable intensity to the doomed Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, and Gardner, with some incongruity, played his mother.
Mayerling was hardly a distinguished film, but was considerably superior to some others in which Sharif went on to appear, not least Che! (1969), a dully temporising Hollywood account of the life of Che Guevara, in which at one point Sharif’s Guevara is confronted by Jack Palance’s Fidel Castro with the mumbled expostulation: “Che, sometimes I just don’t understand you.”
The Last Valley (1971) and The Horsemen (1971) were poorly rated would-be spectacles. It seems significant that in the French-made thriller The Burglars (1971), Sharif was cast opposite a contemporary European box-office favourite, Jean-Paul Belmondo, but in the guise of a stereotypical scheming villain, who ends up smothered by Belmondo in a deserted silo under tons of grain, an intimation of the fate that was to befall him professionally as he appeared in increasingly obscure productions.
But there were still one or two brighter spots to come. In 1975 he reprised the role of Arnstein in the Funny Girl sequel, Funny Lady, and the previous year gave one of his most effective, because downplayed, performances, as the captain of a stricken cruise liner in Juggernaut. Of his playing in this film, the American critic Pauline Kael percipiently remarked: “He is not allowed to smile the famous smile, or even to look soulfully lovesick. He is kept rather grim.”
At this time, Sharif was perhaps more readily associated with the game of bridge than with acting. Though he took it up in adult life, he developed into a world-class player. In addition to competing in international tournaments, he wrote a syndicated column on the subject for several years for the Chicago Tribune, was the author of several books on bridge, and licensed his name to a bridge computer game.
He was also an inveterate high-stakes gambler, a regular at the casinos of Paris and elsewhere, and at the racetrack in Deauville. He maintained that claims of his philandering were ill-founded, but his lifestyle certainly encompassed heavy drinking and smoking more than 50 cigarettes a day, at least until he underwent heart bypass surgery in 1993. And the cost was high in financial terms as well.
Professionally, he drifted from one minor role to the next in a run of TV movies and mini-series, often costume dramas of one kind or another, and mostly of the sort only liable to be found at off-peak hours on the more obscure channels. He candidly told a journalist in 2003 that “for 25 years I have been making rubbish movies”.
There were, moreover, some unedifying moments in his private life. In 2003, he headbutted a policeman in a Paris casino rumpus and was subsequently fined and given a suspended jail term, tactlessly telling the press that to assault a cop was “the dream of every Frenchman”. Two years later, he slugged a parking attendant at a Beverly Hills restaurant. He was placed on probation and ordered to pay restitution.
But at least he had returned into the realms of serious acting by taking the leading role in the 2003 French movie Monsieur Ibrahim, in which his characterisation of an elderly Turkish Muslim shopkeeper secured him a best actor César award, the French equivalent of an Oscar.
In 2006 he declared that he had abandoned gambling and even bridge in favour of family life, and described himself as semi-retired from the screen.
In the previous year he had been the recipient of a Unesco medal for contributions to world cinema and cultural diversity. Lawrence and Zhivago might by then have seemed a long way in the past, but despite – or possibly even because of – the intervening vicissitudes of his life, Sharif’s reputation remained undimmed.
He is survived by his son and two grandsons.
Omar Sharif, actor, born 10 April 1932; died 10 July 2015