A smoul­der­ing lead­ing man of the 1960s

Omar Sharif vaulted to fame in “Doc­tor Zhivago”, “Lawrence of Ara­bia”

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OBITUARIES - BY SARAH EL DEEB AND LEE KEATH

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.

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