The actor Omar Sharif, who has died aged 83, was introduced to the international screen in one of the most dramatic star entrances of film history.
This was the scene in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) in which Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) first makes contact with the Arab chieftain Sherif Ali (Sharif), who will become his key ally in the desert fighting, and the latter, in a daringly protracted sequence, develops from a speck on the horizon into a towering, huge horseman, rifle at the ready.
Sharif was instantly elevated by this debut into a major box-office figure, and went on to star in a succession of big-budget films during the 1960s, most notably the contrasting blockbuster hits Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Funny Girl (1968), as perhaps the last of the “exotic” Hollywood heartthrobs in line of descent from Rudolph Valentino.
This situation, however, proved comparatively short-lived. Almost like the protagonist of a Victorian novel, Sharif was overtaken by his own success, to the extent that in order to service the debts incurred by gambling and a playboy lifestyle, he was thrown back on accepting any work that came his way, and entered a downward spiral into trivial and meretricious movies.
He was born Michel Chalhoub in Alexandria, the son of well-to-do Lebanese-Syrian Christians, Claire (nee Saada) and Joseph Chalhoub, and educated at a private school and at Cairo University. He worked briefly and reluctantly in his father’s lumber business but fell for the lure of acting, and was delighted when a friend, the director Youssef Chahine, offered him a role in the film Struggle in the Valley (1954). The female star was Faten Hamama, who was greatly taken by her leading man and in the same year became his wife, Sharif converting to Islam in the process. The marriage lasted for 20 years and the couple had a son, Tarek, who was to make a brief appearance in Doctor Zhivago in the guise of Yuri Zhivago’s childhood self.
Sharif became established as a principal figure in Egyptian cinema and also starred in the French-backed Goha (1958), which afforded him wider recognition, if only in the arthouses.
But it was his selection by the producer Sam Spiegel and the director David Lean to play Sherif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia that proved the turning point in his career. As he later observed: “Maybe if I hadn’t made Lawrence, I would have gone on living in Cairo and had five children and lots of grandchildren.” He blamed the eventual failure of his marriage on the simple fact of his constant absences in Europe and the US.
The role of Sherif Ali was pivotal in the film’s dramatic scheme, and Sharif’s swarthy, romantic aura was played off to great effect against the blue-eyed blondness of O’Toole’s Lawrence. The two became close friends while making the film. Sharif’s performance won him Golden Globe awards as best supporting actor and most promising newcomer, as well as an Academy Award nomination, though he ruefully recalled that he had signed a contract with the studio that netted him only £8,000 for this and several subsequent appearances.
Fluent in English and French, he worked steadily for the next few years, though as an all-purpose “foreigner”, mainstream cinema never having been especially concerned about precise ethnicity. Thus he played a Spanish priest in Behold a Pale Horse (1964), the title role in a comic-strip historical extravaganza, Genghis Khan (1965), a Yugoslav partisan in The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964), and even, a little later, a Nazi officer, complete with blond-streaked hair, in The Night of the Generals (1967).
But it was as the Russian hero of Lean’s Doctor Zhivago that he achieved his best-remembered screen role, a brooding, magnetic presence, even if some critics felt that the performance, like the whole film, manifested a degree of shallowness.
There was no doubt about his box-office stature, though, and it was revealing that the film version of the musical Funny Girl, which in the theatre had been an unabashed vehicle for Barbra Streisand, was marketed on the basis of her co-starring with Sharif. As the shady gambler Nicky Arnstein, by whom Fanny Brice (Streisand) was enslaved, Sharif was the essence of the homme fatal, and even weighed in with a couple of song numbers. There were rumours at the time that the stars’ relationship had blossomed off-screen too, a notion that was ill received in Sharif’s native land in the light of Streisand’s pro-Israeli sympathies.
Sharif later admitted that he had briefly imagined himself in love with Streisand, and also recalled being smitten by Ava Gardner, his co-star in Mayerling (1968), in which he brought a suitable intensity to the doomed Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, and Gardner, with some incongruity, played his mother.
Mayerling was hardly a distinguished film, but was considerably superior to some others in which Sharif went on to appear, not least Che! (1969), a dully temporising Hollywood account of the life of Che Guevara, in which at one point Sharif’s Guevara is confronted by Jack Palance’s Fidel Castro with the mumbled expostulation: “Che, sometimes I just don’t understand you.”
The Last Valley (1971) and The Horsemen (1971) were poorly rated would-be spectacles. It seems significant that in the French-made thriller The Burglars (1971), Sharif was cast opposite a contemporary European box-office favourite, Jean-Paul Belmondo, but in the guise of a stereotypical scheming villain, who ends up smothered by Belmondo in a deserted silo under tons of grain, an intimation of the fate that was to befall him professionally as he appeared in increasingly obscure productions.
But there were still one or two brighter spots to come. In 1975 he reprised the role of Arnstein in the Funny Girl sequel, Funny Lady, and the previous year gave one of his most effective, because downplayed, performances, as the captain of a stricken cruise liner in Juggernaut. Of his playing in this film, the American critic Pauline Kael percipiently remarked: “He is not allowed to smile the famous smile, or even to look soulfully lovesick. He is kept rather grim.”
At this time, Sharif was perhaps more readily associated with the game of bridge than with acting. Though he took it up in adult life, he developed into a world-class player. In addition to competing in international tournaments, he wrote a syndicated column on the subject for several years for the Chicago Tribune, was the author of several books on bridge, and licensed his name to a bridge computer game.
He was also an inveterate high-stakes gambler, a regular at the casinos of Paris and elsewhere, and at the racetrack in Deauville. He maintained that claims of his philandering were ill-founded, but his lifestyle certainly encompassed heavy drinking and smoking more than 50 cigarettes a day, at least until he underwent heart bypass surgery in 1993. And the cost was high in financial terms as well.
Professionally, he drifted from one minor role to the next in a run of TV movies and mini-series, often costume dramas of one kind or another, and mostly of the sort only liable to be found at off-peak hours on the more obscure channels. He candidly told a journalist in 2003 that “for 25 years I have been making rubbish movies”.
There were, moreover, some unedifying moments in his private life. In 2003, he headbutted a policeman in a Paris casino rumpus and was subsequently fined and given a suspended jail term, tactlessly telling the press that to assault a cop was “the dream of every Frenchman”. Two years later, he slugged a parking attendant at a Beverly Hills restaurant. He was placed on probation and ordered to pay restitution.
But at least he had returned into the realms of serious acting by taking the leading role in the 2003 French movie Monsieur Ibrahim, in which his characterisation of an elderly Turkish Muslim shopkeeper secured him a best actor César award, the French equivalent of an Oscar.
In 2006 he declared that he had abandoned gambling and even bridge in favour of family life, and described himself as semi-retired from the screen.
In the previous year he had been the recipient of a Unesco medal for contributions to world cinema and cultural diversity. Lawrence and Zhivago might by then have seemed a long way in the past, but despite – or possibly even because of – the intervening vicissitudes of his life, Sharif’s reputation remained undimmed.
He is survived by his son and two grandsons.
• Omar Sharif, actor, born 10 April 1932; died 10 July 2015
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