Today we farewell the Egyptian born actor, Omar Sharif, who was known for his striking looks, and his meritorious performances in such films as, “Lawrence Of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago”, in which he received two Golden Globe Awards and an Oscar nomination.
Omar Sharif was born, Michel Demitri Chalhoub on April 10th, 1932, in Alexandria, Egypt to a Melkite Greek family of Syrian-Lebanese Levant descent. His father, Joseph Chalhoub, was a successful merchant of exotic woods, who located to Egypt shortly before Omar’s birth, and his mother, Claire Saada, reigned as one of the countries most notable society hostesses, whose charm and appeal attracted the attention of Egypt’s King Farouk, who would be present at every gathering until he was deposed in 1952.
During his years of schooling at Victoria College, Sharif began to flourish in languages, and for a while he thought about a career as an interpreter, but when he attended Cairo University, he shined in mathematics and physics, which would earn him a degree in those subjects, though they never piqued enough interest in him to pursue a career in that field. Instead he attained a job working for his father at his wood business.
It was around this time that Sharif developed a passion for acting, and after a long period of working for his father’s business, he travelled to London, where he secured a placement at the Royal Academy Of Dramatic Arts. Omar enjoyed his time studying drama at the academy, and once he acquired enough knowledge, he retreated to Egypt to gain work in the film industry.
His film debut came in 1954, when he starred in “Devil Of The Sahara”, an Egyptian film, which is now obsolete. Following the success of his first picture, he was accepted by Fatem Hamama to serve as her co-star in “Struggle In The Valley”. While filming, the two endured a memorable kissing scene, which happened to be their first. This would result in the couple falling in love, and shortly after, Omar Sharif converted to Islam, and married Fatem Hamama. The marriage proved to be a peaceful vicissitude, and they encountered many years of pure bliss, which would come to a conclusion in 1966, when they separated. Although they were living apart, they were still legally married until the divorce was all settled in 1974.
In 1957, their son, Tarek El-Sharif was born in Egypt. While young Tarek was growing up, Omar and Fatem appeared in an array of movies together. By now his populace had disseminated, and in 1962, he scored the role in David Lean’s historical masterpiece, “Lawrence Of Arabia”, a triumphant film that not only brought him critical acclaim, but garnered him a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar nomination.
After “Lawrence Of Arabia”, Sharif”s reputation had spread worldwide, and he now had legions of followers from every continent, who were just as elated with his growing popularity as he was. Before preparation for the production went ahead, it was complex and risky casting Omar in the role of Sharif Ali, as he was still virtually unknown outside of Egypt, but years later, it has been enthroned as one of the most demanding supporting roles in Hollywood history, and Omar Sharif delivered a memorable performance, so much that it is now recognized to be among the most powerful performances to ever be displayed on screen by a supporting actor.
The myriad of accolades that he attained for his work in “Lawrence Of Arabia”, led to him being cast in several more eminent productions during the next couple of years. At David Lean’s suggestion, Fred Zinnemann chose Sharif for the part of Francisco, the priest in the 1964, Gregory Peck vehicle “Behold A Pale Horse”. On it’s release the film opened to mix reviews and the reception was only lukewarm. However Sharif’s performance garnered positive encomium with statements reading that it’s hard to believe that the priest and the sheik are played by the same man.
Around this time, Omar Sharif started to enhance his career by using his ambiguous ethnicity in films and speaking in an array of different languages including, French, Greek and Italian, among others. This method paid off, and he was cast as the Yugoslav wartime patriot in “The Yellow Rolls-Royce” and as the Mongolian conqueror in “Genghis Khan”, as well as a profusion of other films that received critical acclaim.
In 1965, he teamed with David Lean for the second time in “Doctor Zhivago”, a triumphant masterpiece that would make Omar Sherif’s status escalate to great heights. This proved to be a happy reunion, and it also marked the introductory into motion pictures for eight year old, Tarek El-Sharif, who played the role of Yuri at the age of eight in the movie. However Terek never inherited his father’s passion for acting, and this was the last time he ever appeared in a movie. “Doctor Zhivago” boasted multitudinous praise from the start, and Omar Sherif was the proud recipient of the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor.
Omar Sherif’s prodigious journey would continue on in 1968, when he appeared opposite Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl”, another film that would garner him a plethora of accolades. In 1975, he reprised the role in the films sequel “Funny Lady”. During the filming of “Funny Lady”, Sharif became infatuated in Barbra Streisand, although at first he admitted that he didn’t find her attractive at all, but as time progressed, he found himself enamored by her charm and appeal. A week later, Sherif and Streisand were romantically involved, and would remain close friends right up to the end.
As the years progressed, Omar Sharif starred in several productions, playing diverse roles in an array of different genres. Some of these films included, “The Juggernaut” and “The Tamarind Seed”, in which he co-starred alongside Julie Andrews. In 2003, Sherif still enthralled audiences with his portrayal of the Muslim Turkish merchant in “Monsieur Ibrahim Et Les Fleurs Du Coran”, a picture that would earn him a Cesar Award for Best Actor. Omar Sherif’s career came to a cessation in 2013, after the filming of “Rock The Casbah” wrapped up.
Apart from his success in motion pictures, Omar Sharif was a prolific Bridge player and ranked among the world’s top fifty contract Bridge players. His prowess in Bridge playing was showcased when he played in an exhibition match before the Shah of Iran. During the annals of his career, he wrote several books on Bridge and licensed his name to a Bridge video game.
Omar Sharif remained active in the later years of his life, and spent most of the time in Cairo with his family. In early 2015, his health slightly deteriorated, though it wasn’t until May that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, which left a major impact on his life and family. As his condition exacerbated he would mix up the names of his best known pictures, often forgetting where they were filmed.
In June, Shariff was admitted into a hospital in Cairo, where he would spend the remaining weeks of his life. Sadly Omar Sharif passed away on July 10th, 2015, at the age of 83. He is survived by his son and two grandsons.
With a career spanning sixty years, Omar Sharif will be remembered as the Egyptian actor, known for his lush appeal and gallic charm, who took Hollywood by storm.
Rest In Peace Omar Sharif: April 10th, 1932 – July 10th, 2015.
Written by Crystal Kalyana.