Film Legend Omar Sharif Dead of Heart Attack at 83

Omar Sharif as Lawrence of Arabia

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures/Horizon PIctures

Film Legend Omar Sharif Dead of
Heart Attack at 83
| published July 11, 2015 |

By Pamela Pitman Brown
Thursday Review contributor

International film legend, Omar Sharif died July 10th in Cairo from a heart attack. Earlier this year it was announced that the film legend had been diagnosed back in 2012 with Alzheimer’s Disease and was struggling with his memory.

Sharif (Michel Demitri Chalhoub) was born in 1932 in Alexandria, Egypt into a well-off Greek-Syrian-Lebanese family. He changed his name in 1955 to Omar El-Sharif with his conversion to Islam and his marriage to Egyptian actress Faten Hamama (m. 1954 d. 1974). They had one child, Tarek El-Sharif, who also starred alongside his father in Doctor Zhivago as the youthful Yuri.

While Western audiences discovered Sharif on the big screen in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), he had already completed over 15 Egyptian films, including several with his wife long before that famous scene-stealing moment with Peter O’Toole. Lawrence of Arabia was part of a seven-film deal, and he was paid well below the standard rate per film. The other six were: Doctor Zhivago, Behold a Pale Horse, Night of the Generals, Genghis Khan, McKenna's Gold, and Funny Girl.

His performance in Lawrence of Arabia earned him a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture (1963). He also garnered a Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year (Male Actor/1963) which he shared with his Lawrence of Arabia costar, Peter O’Toole, as well as Terence Stamp (Billy Bud) and Keir Dullea (David & Lisa). Doctor Zhivago also earned him another Golden Globe Award in 1965. The accolades he received for Lawrence of Arabia—impressive awards and reviews back then—seem even more potent when viewed alongside the formidable list of co-stars in that David Lean-directed epic: Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Claude Rains, Jose Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Arthur Kennedy, just to name a few. Sharif also held his own in McKenna’s Gold among a top-heavy cast which included Gregory Peck, Telly Savalas, Keenan Wynn, Julie Newmar, Eli Wallach, Burgess Meredith and Lee J. Cobb.

Sharif used his ethnic abstruseness and his ability to fluently speak more than five languages to play foreigners in films using various accents, with true credence. This allowed him to play a Yugoslavian in The Yellow Rolls-Royce, Genghis Khan (lead role of Khan), a German in The Night of the Generals, an Austrian Crown Prince in Mayerling, Argentinian Che Guevara in Che!, a Russian in Doctor Zhivago, as well as the very Jewish Nicky Arnstein, in Funny Girl and Funny Lady. Sharif is credited with 70 films and at least 15 television appearances.

Sharif was also an accomplished bridge player, listed as one of the top players in the world, while also racking up huge gambling debts along the way. He wrote several books on the topic and also lent his name to a video bridge game.

Politically, Sharif considered himself very neutral, not of one world or the other, and moved through the cultural barriers with great ease. He noted that he was a man without a country, without a home, and without a native tongue. When Sharif made one of his last films Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran (2003), he discussed the character and his political role as an Arab personality, “the Arab people like me and respect me—I thought it was time for me to make an ever so tiny statement about what I thought about this whole thing [the Palestinian/Israelis conflict]. I know it won’t change the world. It won’t stop violence, it won’t stop hatred. I wanted to say that it is possible to love each other and to live with each other.”

He stated that his philosophy is that “when I go out of my room, I’m prepared to love everybody I meet, unless they’re bad. If they’re bad, I’m prepared not to love them and to dislike them independently of the fact that they’re Jewish or they’re Black or White or Christian or Muslim…”

Upon being asked about his kissing of Barbara Streisand in Funny Girl he said, “Neither in my professional nor in my private life do I ask a girl her nationality or her religion before I kiss her. That has nothing to do with it.”

Rest in peace, Omar. We hope you have journeyed home.

Quotes: Murray, R. (2003). Omar Sharif Talks About “Monsieur Ibrahim.”

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