WASHINGTON, July 10, 2015 – 1960s silver screen idol Omar Sharif, who rocketed to fame in a pair of sweeping, epic films, died today in a Cairo, Egypt, hospital, succumbing to a heart attack at the age of 83. He remains by far the most internationally renowned film actor ever to hail from an Arab country.
Noted for his Oscar-nominated portrayal of Sherif Ali, closest Arab ally of Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia in David Lean’s eponymous 1962 film as well as his role as the title character in Lean’s later epic, “Dr. Zhivago” (1965), he also starred opposite Barbra Streisand in her first film, “Funny Girl” (1968), in which she portrayed lead character Fannie Bryce.
Born Michael Demitri Shalhoub (or Chaloub) in Egypt in 1932 to a family of Lebanese-Greek Catholics, he later became a convert to Islam in order to marry already-famous Egyptian film star Faten Hamana with whom he had first starred in a 1954 Egyptian film. It has been said that Cairo’s media gossip mills of the time touted their relationship as tirelessly as today’s media and PR flaks trumpet the latest adventures of “Brangelina.”
Sharif and Hamana later divorced, due at least in part to the complex politics of Egypt. Sharif suddenly found himself on the wrong side of the Nasser regime due to his film activities in the U.S. and Europe, which made him persona non grata there for a number of years. His situation was not helped when word of his brief affair with the Jewish Streisand leaked out in the late 1960s. (Hamana passed away earlier this year.)
Sharif was at least consoled in part due to his notable success in Western films. In addition to an Oscar nomination for “Lawrence of Arabia,” he copped a pair of Golden Globes for the film, adding a third Golden Globe for his dashingly romantic portrayal as “Dr. Zhivago,” a film modeled on Boris Pasternak’s famous but controversial novel, whose frank realism concerning the 1917 Russian Revolution won the author the considerable enmity of the then-Soviet Communist government.
Sharif went on to play other intriguing roles after “Funny Girl,” including the romantic lead opposite Julie Andrews in “The Tamarind Seed” (1974), in which he once again portrayed a Russian character. In later films, he continued to play active, controversial characters, including Genghis Kahn and Fidel Castro’s revolutionary pal, Che Guevara.
Sharif’s career began to taper off in the 1980s. Having become something of a playboy and jet-setter by that time, he became better known internationally for his skill as a contract bridge player, even contributing his name and some of his expertise to early computerized contract bridge games.
Nonetheless, he did continue to appear sporadically in films, including a well-received performance in the 2003 French-language film “Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran” (“Mr. Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran”) as well as “Hidalgo” (2004) and “Rock the Casbah” (2013).
Eventually, after the death of Nasser in 1970, Sharif was able to return to Egypt once again to rejoin members of his family. In recent years, however, political problems returned anew when one of his sons, Omar Sharif, Jr., incurred the wrath of the brief Islamic Brotherhood-led government in 2011-2012 when he came out as half-Jewish and gay.