CAIRO — Omar Sharif, the Egypt-born actor with the dark, soulful eyes who soared to international stardom in the David Lean epics “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago,” has died. He was 83.
Sharif, who had Alzheimer’s disease, died of a heart attack in a Cairo hospital, according to his longtime agent, Steve Kenis, and close friends.
When director David Lean cast him in 1962’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” Sharif already was the biggest heartthrob in his homeland, where he played brooding, romantic heroes in multiple films in the 1950s — and was married to Egyptian cinema’s reigning screen beauty. But he was a virtual unknown elsewhere.
Sharif’s Hollywood debut instantly made him a smoldering leading man, transcending nationality.
But he hadn’t even been the director’s first choice to play Sherif Ali, the tribal leader with whom Peter O’Toole’s enigmatic T.E. Lawrence teams 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 color.
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.
Sharif’s entrance in “Lawrence of Arabia” is stunning. He first emerges as a speck in the distance in the shimmering desert sand. Then, he draws closer, a black-robed figure on a trotting camel, until finally he dismounts, pulling aside his scarf to reveal his dark eyes and a disarming smile framed by his thin mustache.
The film brought him a supporting-actor Oscar nomination.
His international stardom was cemented three years later by his starring turn in another sweeping historical epic by Lean, “Doctor Zhivago.”
In it, 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 devotion to his beloved Lara, played by Julie Christie.
Lean’s adaptation of the Boris Pasternak novel had a rocky beginning in its first U.S. release. Attendance was sparse, and reviews were negative.
After MGM removed it from theaters and Lean re-edited the sprawling tale, it was re-released and became a box-office hit.
Though he had over 100 movies to his credit, “Doctor Zhivago” was considered his Hollywood classic.
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.
Though Sharif never achieved that level of success again, he remained a sought-after actor for many years, in part because of his proficiency at playing different nationalities.
He was Argentina-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 also was the Jewish gambler Nick Arnstein opposite Barbra Streisand’s Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl,” a 1968 movie that was banned in his native Egypt because he was cast as a Jew.
“He was handsome, sophisticated and charming,” Streisand said. “He was a proud Egyptian.”
Streisand said the “Funny Girl” casting was controversial, but “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,” she said.
Yousra — Egypt’s biggest actress for much of the past 30 years and a close friend of Sharif — compared him to a “clean-cut” diamond.
“He was a phenomenon, a one of a kind,” she said Friday. “Everyone had a dream to be like Omar Sharif. No one will be like him.”
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.”
The drought lasted so long that finally, beginning in the late 1990s, Sharif began declining all film offers.
“I lost my self-respect and dignity,” he told a reporter in 2004. “Even my grandchildren were making fun of me. ‘Grandpa, that was really bad. And this one? It’s worse.’ ”
He had something of a revival, though. In 2003, he played a Muslim shopkeeper in Paris who adopts a Jewish boy in the French film “Monsieur Ibrahim,” winning him a Cesar, the French equivalent of the Oscar.
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.
But for most of the 1990s and 2000s, he was better known for his international playboy lifestyle. He lived in hotels and gambled prodigiously, reportedly once winning a million dollars at an Italian casino.
He was also a world-class bridge player and for many years wrote a newspaper column on the game that appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, among other papers. He quit the game in his later years when he gave up gambling.
Born Michael Shalhoub on April 10, 1932, in Egypt’s Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria, Sharif was the son of Christian Syrian-Lebanese parents.
After working for three years at his father’s lumber company, he fulfilled his longtime ambition to become a movie actor, going on to appear in nearly two dozen Egyptian films under the name Omar el Sharif.
He appeared in nearly two dozen Egyptian films. In the 1954 “Struggle in the Valley,” he plays a young man caught up in a power struggle in a Nile village and in love with the daughter of his rival, played by Egypt’s top movie queen, Faten Hamama.
A year later, Sharif converted to Islam and married Hamama. They were the glamor couple of Egyptian cinema, going on to star together in multiple films. Their longing gaze, locked together about to kiss, is an iconic image of Egyptian movie posters.
They had a son, Tarek, and divorced in 1974.
Sharif never remarried, often saying Hamama was his one love but that he could never settle down. He was romantically linked with a number of Hollywood co-stars over the years.
In 2004, he acknowledged he also had another son, who was born after a one-night stand with an interviewer.
He was also notorious for a violent temper. Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said wrote that Sharif was the school bully at Alexandria’s Victoria College, which they both attended as young boys.
In 2003, after losing a substantial amount at a Paris casino, Sharif argued with a croupier, insulted him and was ordered to leave. When he refused, he was thrown out and head-butted a policeman during the ensuing scuffle. That got him a $1,700 fine and a one-year suspended sentence.
In 2007, he punched a Beverly Hills parking valet who refused to accept payment in Euros. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor battery charge and had to take an anger-management course.
Sharif spent much of his later years in at a hotel 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.
“If you feel anything, health-wise, you can call the concierge and tell them to bring all the ambulances in Paris.”
He quit gambling, saying he needed to ensure that he had enough money.
Sharif’s son Tarek revealed in May that his father had Alzheimer’s.
In fact, he’d been suffering from the disease for three years, according to Zahi Hawass, the former chief of Egypt’s antiquities administration and a close friend of Sharif.
Hawass said Friday that when he told him Hamama died in January, Sharif asked him, “Faten who?”
Sharif was moved to a Cairo hospital a month ago and had grown increasingly depressed, refusing food or water the past several days.
In a 2003 interview, Sharif struck a wistful note about how “Lawrence of Arabia” had vaulted him to fame.
It will always be a great film, he said, but “it separated me from my wife, from my family … That was it, the end of our wedding.”
“I might have been happier having stayed an Egyptian film star.”