Obituary: Omar Sharif

  • Published
Omar SharifImage source, Rex Features

Omar Sharif was the most famous Egyptian actor of his generation.

He brought a smouldering intensity to films such as Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.

A man of striking good looks he escorted some of the world's most beautiful women.

But he quit acting to become a ubiquitous presence at the world's most exclusive gaming tables.

Michel Demitri Shalhoub was born in Alexandria on 10 April 1932 into a family of Lebanese ancestry.

His father was a wealthy timber merchant specialising in exotic woods.

His mother was a noted society hostess with King Farouk a regular visitor, before he was deposed in 1952.

Image source, Rex Features
Image caption,
His brooding good looks made him a favourite with female cinemagoers

The young Shalhoub studied at the British Victoria College in Alexandria where he showed himself to be academically gifted with a particular talent for languages.

He went on to graduate from the University of Cairo with a degree in mathematics and physics before joining the family business.

But he harboured ambitions to be an actor and, much to the disappointment of his father, went to London to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada).

During the 1950s he appeared in a number of Egyptian films, rapidly becoming a star in his own country.


He also married the Egyptian actress Faten Hamama, converting from his Melkite Greek Catholicism to Islam so the union could take place.

When David Lean was looking to cast a film about TE Lawrence, he picked out a photograph of Sharif and gave him a screen test.

Sharif's first on-screen appearance as Ali, riding across the sands out of a shimmering heat haze towards the camera, was one of cinema's most stunning debuts.

Image source, Rex Features
Image caption,
Lawrence of Arabia brought him international fame

Lawrence of Arabia made him a truly international star. The film earned seven Oscars and nominations for both Sharif and his co-star, Peter O'Toole.

He followed this with another intense portrayal, that of the eponymous Doctor Zhivago, in Lean's 1965 Russian epic, based on the novel by Boris Pasternak.

With his black eyes and famous gap-toothed smile, Sharif was depicted as a type of Rudolf Valentino of the 1960s.

He later called this a triumph of hype over accuracy, but he certainly escorted some of the world's most glamorous women.

"I don't know what women are attracted to," he said, "but certainly I have no notion about having any sex appeal."


Sharif admitted to falling madly for his co-stars, among them Ingrid Bergman, Catherine Deneuve and Ava Gardner.

But, disillusioned with the regime of Colonel Nasser in Egypt, he began spending more time away from his native country.

The Egyptian authorities were also angered by Sharif's role in Funny Girl, alongside co-star Barbra Streisand.

Image source, Rex Features
Image caption,
His appearance in Funny Girl angered the Egyptian authorities

The actress was a vocal supporter of Israel and the Egyptians threatened to withdraw his citizenship when it emerged the pair were having a relationship.

Sharif's career failed to fulfil its early promise, and the actor was the first to admit he squandered his talent in pursuit of easy money.

He spent his time drinking away the days with O'Toole and other renowned hell-raisers. The evenings he spent gambling, a passion he inherited from his mother.

To fund his hedonistic lifestyle, not least his debts at the gaming tables, he appeared as the "foreign gentleman" in many mediocre films that exploited his looks and star quality.


He eventually turned his back on Hollywood in favour of the casino-rich capitals of Europe. He became particularly successful at bridge and was ranked among the world's best players.

Sharif's later life appeared like something out of one of the epic films of his youth, with elements of faded grandeur thrown in.

The money from his meteoric career mostly gambled or given away, Sharif based himself in a Paris hotel room, with sojourns to the local casino or the race track at Deauville.

Image caption,
The actor claimed to have had no regrets

Fellow gamblers continued to hang on the actor's every word, even though he famously gave up roulette after he lost £750,000 in one night.

His behaviour became erratic. He was convicted of assaulting a policeman in Paris and, on another occasion, a Beverly Hills parking attendant.

Sharif later claimed his life might have been very different without the changes brought to bear by international stardom.

But he said he had no regrets. "I don't know the meaning of the word. If I was back there again, I would do it the same way.

"Luckily, not everything I did was rubbish for money. I have had some great moments."

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