RIP Omar Sharif, star of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, ‘Doctor Zhivago’, and an elegant romancer

 

This piece was originally published on the now-defunct Sound on Sight website. It has been reprinted in its entirety below.


Omar Sharif, the international film star famed for roles in Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, has passed away of a heart attack at the age of 83, leaving behind a limelight legacy rivaling any of Hollywood’s favorite leading men.

Born in Alexandria, Egypt as Michel Demitri Shalhoub, Sharif changed his name as a young university graduate landing his first film roles in his native country. In what seemed like no time for the life of a beginning actor, Sharif—in part due to his famous good looks—soon gained traction in the world of film, but also in the tabloid press, converting to Islam and marrying co-star and Egyptian actress Faten Hamama in 1955. These trysts with female leads, however, would continue during their marriage, and Sharif’s flirtations would soon become almost as notable as his films.

Still, Sharif’s screen presence won out when his first English-language film delivered to him a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his 1962 role as Sharif Ali in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, considered by many to be among the greatest films ever made. As a character both withholding and inviting, Sharif’s anticipated arrival into British cinema might even be comparable to his classic entrance in the film itself, arriving as a glimmer out of nowhere, commanding attention with an ever-growing presence.

Indeed, Sharif’s Orientalized charisma—a Hollywood-endorsed exoticism he was aware played a role in his multi-ethnic casting—never charmed audiences as much as in his next collaboration with Lean, wherein he played the titular character in 1965’s Doctor Zhivago. His role as a confident, doomed lovebird would also lend him praise for another famed role opposite Barbra Streisand’s Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, proving nonetheless that Sharif could fluctuate across genre and setting with an elegance that managed to hinder the type-casting thrown to other male stars like Clint Eastwood or Cary Grant.

A romancer, perhaps, but not necessarily a Romantic, Sharif had a tendency to look outside his career to explain his rises and falls, the latter of which increased in number at the end of 1960s.

“I did three films that are classics,” he said to the New York Times in 1995, “which is very rare in itself, and they were all made within five years.” Sharif expresses similar realist sentiments—but with not a hint of bitterness—in the interview clip below.

Burdened by gambling debts—an ironic vice considering Funny Girl’s Nick Ornstein’s identical dilemma—and keen to keep his family above water, Sharif left the world of big-budget hits in later years and settled into less popular roles, eventually favoring a life of minor film and television roles.

Regardless, Sharif remains one of the most unique and recognizable presences in some of the most classic films of the last century, cementing him always in the state of fame and adoration that bolstered him in the height of his career, ever-emergent on the desert horizons of the imagination.

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