A smouldering leading man of the 1960s
Omar Sharif vaulted to fame in “Doctor Zhivago”, “Lawrence of Arabia”
In “Lawrence of Arabia,” Omar Sharif first emerges as speck in distance in the shimmering desert sand. He draws closer, a black-robed figure on a trotting camel, until he finally dismounts, pulling aside his scarf to reveal his dark eyes and a disarming smile framed by his thin moustache.
The Egyptian-born actor’s Hollywood debut immediately enshrined him as a smouldering leading man of the 1960s, transcending nationality.
Sharif died of a heart attack in a Cairo hospital on Friday at the age of 83, his London-based agent Steve Kenis and close friends said.
When director David Lean cast him in 1962’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” Sharif was already 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.
He wasn’t Lean’s first choice to play Sherif Ali, the tribal leader with whom Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence teams up 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 colour. 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.
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.”
Though he had over 100 films to his credit, “Doctor Zhivago” was considered his Hollywood classic. The Russian doctor-poet Zhivago makes his way through the upheaval of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, guided by his devotion to his art and to his doomed love for Lara, played by Julie Christie.
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.
Although Sharif never achieved that level of success again, he remained a soughtafter actor for many years, able to play different nationalities.
He was Argentine-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 was also the Jewish gambler Nick Arnstein opposite Barbra Streisand’s Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl.” The 1968 film was banned in his native Egypt because he was cast as a Jew.
“He was handsome, sophisticated and charming. He was a proud Egyptian and in some people’s eyes,” Streisand said in a statement. She 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.
In his middle years Sharif began appearing in such films as “The Pink Panther Strikes Again,” “Oh Heavenly Dog!,” 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.”‘
In this Sept. 10, 2009 file photo, Egyptian actor Omar Sharif gestures during the photo call for the film ‘Al Mosafer (The Traveller)’ at the 66th edition of the Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy.