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One of the rare Middle Eastern actors to achieve stardom in both the Hollywood and international markets, Omar Sharif was a powerful presence in some of the biggest films of the 1960s - both in terms of scope and success - including "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962) and "Doctor Zhivago." A leading man in his native Egypt, he was cast as the fiercely loyal friend to Peter O'Toole's Lawrence in the David Lean epic, and rose to immediate fame around the globe; subsequent film efforts followed closely in the sweep and theme of "Lawrence," including Lean's "Zhivago" (1965), which cast him in his first English-language lead, "The Fall of the Roman Empire" (1964), and the musical "Funny Girl" (1968). Sharif's time at the top of the box office was short-lived. By the mid 1970s, he was relegated to European productions and sudsy American product like "Bloodline" (1979), but he continued to work, largely in television, for the next two decades before reaching a career high point with his award-winning turn in "Monsieur Ibrahim" (2003). Even in his seventh decade, Sharif commanded a degree of class, Old World charm and romanticism that eluded actors with twice his popularity and half his age, which assured him a...
One of the rare Middle Eastern actors to achieve stardom in both the Hollywood and international markets, Omar Sharif was a powerful presence in some of the biggest films of the 1960s - both in terms of scope and success - including "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962) and "Doctor Zhivago." A leading man in his native Egypt, he was cast as the fiercely loyal friend to Peter O'Toole's Lawrence in the David Lean epic, and rose to immediate fame around the globe; subsequent film efforts followed closely in the sweep and theme of "Lawrence," including Lean's "Zhivago" (1965), which cast him in his first English-language lead, "The Fall of the Roman Empire" (1964), and the musical "Funny Girl" (1968). Sharif's time at the top of the box office was short-lived. By the mid 1970s, he was relegated to European productions and sudsy American product like "Bloodline" (1979), but he continued to work, largely in television, for the next two decades before reaching a career high point with his award-winning turn in "Monsieur Ibrahim" (2003). Even in his seventh decade, Sharif commanded a degree of class, Old World charm and romanticism that eluded actors with twice his popularity and half his age, which assured him a place in the pantheon of movie history as one of its most memorable leading men.
Michael Demitri Shalhoub was born in Alexandria, Egypt on April 10, 1932. The family was well-to-do thanks to his father's lumber company; Sharif's home in Egypt was frequented by the wealthy elite of the country, as well as King Farouk, who was a close friend to and frequent card player with his mother. After graduating from Victorian College in Alexandria and later Cairo University with a degree in mathematics and physics, he made his living at his father's company until the early 1950s, when he decided to try his hand at film acting. Billed as Omar El-Sharif, his debut in 1954's "The Blazing Sun" made him an overnight success, thanks in no small part to his smoldering good looks and the undeniable chemistry with his female lead, Faten Hamama, one of the country's most popular stars at that time. More Egyptian films featuring the couple soon followed, and their popularity skyrocketed after Sharif, a Catholic, converted to Islam to marry Hamama in 1955.
In 1961, Sharif was cast in David Lean's historical epic, "Lawrence of Arabia." Both Horst Buchholz and Alain Delon were originally considered for the role, while Sharif was slated to play Tafas, Lawrence's ill-fated guide. But after both established actors were considered unsuitable for the role, Lean shifted Sharif to the crucial role of Sherif Ali ibn el Karish, Lawrence's ally and friend in his war against the Turks. In a film filled with iconic images, Sharif's first appearance in Lawrence is among the most mesmerizing; he first appears as almost a hallucination, a black-clad figure astride a camel, shimmering in the blazing heat of the desert, with Lean holding on his advance until he appears in full focus to reveal his striking features. Such moments, as well as the worldwide success of the picture, helped to make Sharif an international star; for his efforts in "Lawrence," Sharif received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor and a Golden Globe for both Best Supporting Actor and Most Promising Newcomer - Male.
In the years that followed "Lawrence," Sharif became the go-to for ethnic heroes in major Hollywood epics; he was the Armenian king Sohamus, who marries Sophia Loren in the massive "Fall of the Roman Empire" (1964) and played the title role in "Genghis Khan" one year later before reuniting with Lean to play the romantic title hero in "Doctor Zhivago" (1965). The latter had been a dream project of Sharif's after reading the source novel by Boris Pasternak. He was pleasantly surprised to win the lead at Lean's request. It, along with "Lawrence," would remain the most enduringly popular and critically acclaimed films of his career.
Sharif was also a regular in modern-day dramas as well; most notably thrillers like the Spanish Civil War story "Behold a Pale Horse" (1964) and "Night of the Generals" (1967), which again cast him opposite his "Lawrence" co-star, Peter O'Toole, in a murder mystery set in the world of the Nazi High Command during World War II. And, as "Zhivago" proved, his intensity and physical attributes made him a natural for romances like "Mayerling" (1968), where his Austrian royal abandons a loveless marriage for Catherine Deneuve. His best effort in this genre was undoubtedly "Funny Girl" (1968), with Sharif as the dashing but tragic gambler Nicky Arnstein, husband to stage star Fanny Brice (Barbra Streisand). The film was a hit with audiences around the world save for his native Egypt, where his romantic scenes opposite the Jewish Streisand (reportedly offscreen as well as onscreen) angered government officials.
Though Sharif's career flourished in the 1960s, the constant work had a detrimental effect on his marriage. The government of President Gamal Abdel Nassar placed travel restrictions on Egyptians leaving the country for international work, which played havoc with Sharif's ability to appear in films. Eventually, he settled on residing in Europe between projects, which led to an unfortunate if amicable divorce from Hamama. Saddened, but free to pursue work in all corners of the globe, Sharif closed the 1960s with the Golden Lion-nominated thriller, "The Appointment" (1969) and the thrilling Western adventure, "Mackenna's Gold (1969), which had a strong influence on "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981) and its sequels. Only "Che!" (1969), with Sharif as the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevera, failed at the box office. The actor remained as popular a draw among moviegoers at the end of the decade as he had when he emerged from the international scene at its beginning.
However, with the launch of the new decade, Sharif's star power began to wane. The odd historical adventure "The Last Valley" (1971), and "The Horsemen" (1971), with Sharif as an Afghani sportsman, were at the head of a string of hits and misses that filled out his career during this period. The Blake Edwards romance "The Tamarind Seed" (1974), with Sharif and Julie Andrews as Cold War lovers, and "Juggernaut" (1974), a disaster picture set on the high seas, also failed to find audiences. Even his brief reunion with Streisand for "Funny Lady" (1975) was only a modest success. By the midpoint of the decade, he was making fewer and fewer onscreen appearances; instead devoting more attention to his passions, which included horse racing and bridge. He would eventually become known as a global authority on the latter, with several books and a syndicated newspaper column on the subject to his name. In 1977, his written output grew to include his autobiography, The Eternal Male.
Sharif retained a presence in international film well into the 1980s. Among his more notable efforts during this period was the campy Sidney Sheldon adaptation "Bloodline" (1979) with Audrey Hepburn, and the Zucker Brothers comedy "Top Secret!" (1984), which allowed him to spoof his suave persona. Television eventually became his primary medium, and he lent sophistication and Hollywood glamour to countless productions, including "The Far Pavilions" (1984) as Ben Cross' Indian advisor; "Peter the Great" (1986); and the mildly exploitative "Harem" (1986), which cast him as a libidinous sultan. Sharif also made his stage debut in London's West End production of "The Sleeping Prince."
In 1992, Sharif curtailed his busy work schedule after undergoing triple bypass surgery. He returned to Egypt on a permanent basis to live with his son, who had his own family, and kept his screen appearances to a minimum. In interviews, he cited his grandsons as a central reason to largely retire from the film industry, based on their negative opinions of his recent efforts. By 1999, their influence appeared to have an influence on any subsequent decisions about roles. Sharif continued to keep his output down to about a film a year. Among those infrequent efforts were such modest hits as "Hidalgo" (2004), with Viggo Mortensen as an American cowboy competing in a horse race across the Arabian Desert, and "Monsieur Ibrahim" (2003), a moving French drama about an elderly Turkish man (Sharif) who takes a fatherless young Jewish boy under his wing. The film was widely praised in critical circles, and Sharif enjoyed some of the best reviews of his career since the 1960s, as well as the Cesar - France's equivalent of the Oscar - and the Audience Award for Best Actor from the 2003 Venice Film Festival.
Sharif continued to work in international projects for the next few years; most, if not all, continued to employ him in the genre that made him famous - historical epics like "The Ten Commandments" (ABC, 2006) and "10,000 BC" (2008). Sharif's offscreen interests also earned him headlines, though for all the wrong reason. In 2003, he was arrested for assaulting a police officer in a Parisian casino and received a suspended prison sentence. Four years later, he was found guilty of assaulting a parking attendant in Beverly Hills. Not all of Sharif's newsworthy incidents were so legal-minded; in 2005, he received a rare medal from the United Nations Educations, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for his contributions to world cinema.
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Sharif writes a syndicated column on bridge.
"When we were making 'Zhivago,' David Lean, the director, used to say, 'Omar, please take out the violins. I hear 28 violins.' And I would say, 'but I can't!' Then I would do the scene again and he would say, 'only eight violins this time.' And I would say, 'eight violins is my minimum.'" --Omar Sharif, quoted in The New York Times, April 12, 1995.
"Sometimes I wonder if I would have been happier if I had never made 'Lawrence of Arabia.' I had a beautiful house, a wonderful wife. I made all the films I wanted. My wife and I worked together often. What more could you want? I could have had a beautiful home now, four kids, seven grandchildren. Ah, my destiny was different." --Omar Sharif, quoted in The New York Times, April 12, 1995.
"I lost my self-respect and dignity, even my grandchildren were making fun of me. 'Grandpa, that was really bad. And this one? Even worse.' I decided to retire, unless something good came along. But no more rubbish."---Sharif on his string of bad films, which led him to retire EW March 19, 2004
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