Omar Sharif was one of the enduring heart-throbs of the 1960s with his dark Egyptian features and smouldering eyes. He achieved screen immortality in two films, Lawrence of Arabia and Dr Zhivago.
His other work was less impressive and evidently inspired more by the need to pay off gambling debts than a wish to perfect his art.
His screen credits included Goha in 1959, and then David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, in which he played Sherif Ali Ibn el Karish. Ingrid Bergman was one of many to judge his screen entrance, at the watering hole of the Harith, as the greatest of all time: “Omar Sharif certainly had an entrance in Lawrence of Arabia, that you’ll never forget – a beautiful entrance. The sun and a camel”.
He arrived memorably from across the desert in a scene that Lean made last as long as he dared (it was made yet longer in the re-release in 1989). Lean’s philosophy about the entrance was learned from William Wyler: “If you’re going to surprise an audience you must nearly bore them to death”. The entrance was filmed at about 9-10am for the necessary effect. And there was only one take, as Sharif confirmed: “One take, but a very long one, because of the distance I had to travel.” This Sharif estimated at two to three miles, though it was probably only a quarter of a mile.
The film (originally a minute shorter than Gone with the Wind, though later cut by 20 minutes) won seven Academy Awards in 1963, but Sharif lost to Ed Begley in Sweet Bird of Youth as supporting actor. Interestingly, Sharif was not the first choice for Ali. Sam Spiegel wanted the French playboy actor, Christian Marquand, but Lean chose Sharif from a photograph. The young Egyptian was flown out to the desert in Amman in a tiny plane and, looking down, spotted the lone figure of Lean waiting among miles of sand.
Lean supervised his costume, rejected a false beard but chose a moustache. Sharif grew his own and wore it from then on. The epic film took 20 months to make and they started work in May 1961. Many of the desert scenes were filmed in Morocco, though the famous entrance was filmed at Jafr in Jordan, a good spot for mirages.
Sharif’s other memorable Lean epic was Dr Zhivago, filmed mostly in a suburb of Madrid between December 1964 and October 1965. His melting brown eyes captured a million hearts, and in beautiful scenes such as the arrival at the deserted icicle-hung retreat of the family he inspired a confidence in his love for Lara (Julie Christie) that was never echoed in life. The star part of the doctor-poet was first offered to Peter O’Toole, who would not do it so soon after Lawrence, and almost offered to Paul Newman on the grounds that he could play a writer. Lean was given a free hand and later explained: “I thought: ‘Damn it, I’m going to use Omar. He’s easy to work with!’”
Sharif had read Pasternak’s book in the hope of finding a suitable part for himself and did so in the student-turned-revolutionary (finally played by Tom Courtenay). As an Egyptian, he hardly expected to be asked to play a Russian. He was filming Genghis Khan in Yugoslavia, and while he was playing bridge with Telly Sevalas in the Hotel Metropole in Belgrade his agent called to say he had been offered the lead.
Sharif then had to be Russianised. He waxed his hairline an inch away from his forehead, his eyes were pulled back with tape, and his hair was straightened. He was taught to do medical stitches by a surgeon. For the celebrated scene in which he looks down from the balcony to witness protesting marchers mown down by the Tsar’s horsemen, Lean urged him to employ the look he would have if in bed with a woman, just before orgasm. Sharif found the filming less arduous than Lawrence, and welcomed the proximity of restaurants.
Dr Zhivago had to compete for Oscars with The Sound of Music and only won six. The reviews were universally disparaging, which is hard to believe today, but the film itself went on to gross over $200 million.
Sadly, Sharif’s other work was no match for his collaborations with Lean. Inevitably films such as the epic The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) followed. The same year came the action film Behold a Pale Horse and the charming The Yellow Rolls Royce, in which he played a piratical figure opposite Ingrid Bergman. Genghis Khan, dubbed “a meandering epic in which brutality alternates with pantomimish comedy and bouts of sex” (1965) preceded Dr Zhivago.
There was another collaboration with Peter O’Toole, The Night of the Generals, Marco the Magnificent (both 1966) and More than a Miracle (1967). The popular, if irritating, musical Funny Girl (1968), opposite Barbra Streisand, came next, combining on- and off-set romance. Mayerling (1968) returned him to the world of empire, the tragic tale of the mysterious suicide pact between Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria and his girlfriend (Catherine Deneuve).
Then came Mackenna’s Gold, a star-studded western in which he had a memorable fight with Gregory Peck (1968), The Appointment, a confusingly edited and badly dubbed effort with Anouk Aimee and Lotte Lenya (1969) and Che!, the fictional life of Che Guevara (1969). The Last Valley (1970) was an historical action picture with Michael Caine, and was followed by another action film, The Horsemen, then The Burglars (both 1971), The Tamarind Seed, an undemanding romance and spy story (1974), Juggernaut, a suspense spectacular (1974), The Mysterious Island of Captain Nemo (1974), Funny Lady, the sequel to Funny Girl (1975), Crime and Passion (1975), Ace up my Sleeve (1976), Ashanti (1978), Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline (1979) – in which Audrey Hepburn made an ill-advised comeback – and many more worse.
Sharif was born in Egypt and attended Victoria College, the country’s most famous school. His family had money when he was young, but lost their fortune when King Farouk was overthrown in 1952. Young Omar became an actor and married a leading Egyptian actress, Faten Hamama, in Cairo. They had one son, Tareq (who became an advertising executive in Montreal), and were divorced in 1966.
He was a noted lothario, known as “Cairo Fred”. He enjoyed heady romances with co-stars such as Streisand, Anouk Aimée, Deneuve, Marilou Tolo and Dyan Cannon, but, following his divorce, he eschewed any permanent commitment. At the height of his success he lived in Beverly Hills, but much preferred Europe.
In his later years he lived in a rented flat in Paris, looked after by a housekeeper called Pepita, and was not noted as an early riser. His good looks never deserted him, though the famous dark hair went steely grey. His main interests were his racehorses by day and playing bridge by night. (In 1994 he took on Boris Schapiro in a charity match for WellBeing in London, but lost.) He also enjoyed dining expensively with male friends. Other than that his life was nomadic.
Sharif’s philosophy was to do as little as possible other than enjoy himself, and when he had money in the bank he did no work. When the money ran out, then he returned to the screen. For this reason he made a rare appearance at the Chichester Festival in the 1980s, and in 1994 he worked on the thriller Red Star, co-starring Timothy Dalton and Nigel Havers. This appealed to him as it was filmed partly in the South of France and partly in Luxembourg. Later years were dogged by occasional heart attacks.
He dismissed the films of his middle years “rubbish”, and the dearth of decent roles lasted so long that finally, beginning in the late 1990s, he began declining all offers. “I lost my self-respect and dignity,” he said in 2004. “Even my grandchildren were making fun of me. ‘Grandpa, that was really bad. And this one? It’s worse.’”
By then his career was back on track thanks to his role in the French film Monsieur Ibrahim (2003), playing a Muslim shopkeeper in Paris who adopts a Jewish boy. He won a César, the French equivalent of the Oscars, and he followed it with as a desert sheikh who fights 11 assailants with a sword in Hidalgo, a lively western starring Viggo Mortensen.
In 2007 he pleaded no contest to an assault charge in the US and was ordered to take an anger management course for punching a parking valet who refused to accept his European currency. Sharif spent much of his later years in Cairo and at the Royal Moncean Hotel in Paris.
Michel Demitri Shalhouz (Omar Sharif), actor and bridge player: born 10 April 1932; married 1954 Faten Hamama (divorced 1974; one son); died 10 July 2015.Reuse content