Omar Sharif, by the far the most iconic film star ever to emerge out of the Arab world, has died at the age of 83. Sharif’s agent revealed he had suffered a heart attack in a hospital in Cairo. It had been revealed in May that Sharif was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Sharif, born Michel Shalhoub in Egypt to a Lebanese Greek Catholic family, converted to Islam upon meeting Faten Hamama, the love of his life, frequent co-star as well as wife and mother to his only son Tarek. Although Sharif burst onto the international stage in David Lean’s Lawrence Of Arabia in 1962, he had achieved fame in the Arab world almost a decade earlier in Youssef Chahine’s searing 1954 drama Sira’a Fil Wadi with Hamama, the two beautiful lovers very much the Brangelina of their day in glamorous Cairo, at the time boarding the world’s third most active film industry after Hollywood and Bollywood.
It was his performance as Sherif Ali opposite Peter O’Toole’s piercing blue-eyed Lawrence that would catapult Sharif to a global stardom no Arab actor achieved before or since. He cemented his status as one of the decade’s great cinematic faces when he re-teamed with Lean for Doctor Zhivago in 1965. Swapping the burning deserts of Arabia for the snow-swept landscape of revolutionary Russia opposite Julie Christie, Sharif achieved the hitherto unthinkable: breaking free from ethnic typecasting to emerge a truly global, romantic leading-man star.
That would bring its own difficulties as well. As the 1960s swung on, Sharif enjoyed more success opposite Barbra Streisand in 1968’s Funny Girl as the dashing Nick Arnstein to her Fanny Brice. For all his jetset lifestyle, Sharif was still tied to his roots and the sight of him romancing the pro-Israel Streisand — mere months after the 1967 Six Day War in which Egypt and other Arab states were defeated by Israel — caused him huge problems back home and almost saw his Egyptian citizenship withdrawn. It was a sign of the man’s bravery and greatness that he held his ground and refused to apologize for practicing his profession. In time, Egyptians remembered to love him again as he achieved immortality within his own lifetime across the region.
That deep, melodious voice — sandpapered over time by whisky and cigarettes — and a face both handsome and beautiful saw him play everyone from Genghis Khan (1964) to Archduke Rodolf in Mayerling (1968), Che Guevara in Che! (1969) and a Russian agent in Blake Edwards’ The Tamarind Seed (1974).
For a time the lifestyle and fame seemed to get in the way of the great roles. It may have been a coincidence that he divorced Hamama in 1974, a decision he would say because he loved her too much to keep breaking her heart with his nightlife escapades. The roles and revelry — often with fellow bon vivant O’Toole — would continue and that voice endured even through the more forgettable pictures.
He became as famous for his extra-curricular activities such as bridge, at which he was a world class competitor, and poker, at which he was not. He returned, intermittently, to Egyptian cinema and TV but he often seemed too big for the roles — or maybe they were just too small for him.
There were still occasional glimpses of the genius he could call on. Mayrig, opposite Claudia Cardinale about the Armenian genocide of 1915, was a success as both a film in 1991 and later TV series. There were fun cameos in the likes of 13th Warrior (1999) opposite Antonio Banderas and The Parole Officer (2001) before a triumphant return to form with Monsieur Ibrahim (2003) about the tender friendship between an elderly Muslim shopkeeper and young Jewish boy. He deservedly won the Best Actor Cesar for it.
In a post 9/11 world, with the supposed clash between East and West, Sharif’s effortless humanity and sophistication became a quietly powerful example of how we could all get along. He was equally comfortable in English, Arabic and French, on the streets of Paris or the river banks of Cairo.
His beloved Hamama died January 17 this year. He continued to say with pride and some regret that, despite his playboy reputation, she remained the one and only love of his life. The more romantic of us can only dream that they are now reunited once more. For the rest, it can be said that Sharif was incomparable and is irreplaceable.