‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ ‘Dr. Zhivago’ star Omar Sharif dead at 83

Egyptian-born 1960s screen idol succumbs to heart attack in Cairo, Egypt. Had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Omar Sharif with co-star Cyrine Abdelnour.
Omar Sharif with co-star Cyrine Abdelnour at 2009 Venice Film Festival. Both were key characters in "The Traveller," and Egyptian film. (Via Wikipedia)

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.

Omar Sharif in "Lawrence of Arabia."
Omar Sharif in “Lawrence of Arabia.” (Image via Wikipedia)

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.)

Omar Sharif as Dr. Zhivago.
Omar Sharif as the title character in David Lean’s film of Boris Pasternak’s “Dr. Zhivago.” (Image via Wikipedia)

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.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17