The BBC is reporting that Omar Sharif, star of Lawrence Of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago, has died of a heart attack. He was 83 years old.
Born in Alexandria, Egypt as Michel Demitri Chalhoub, Sharif studied acting but followed his father into the lumber business before pursuing a film career. Gifted with an intense screen presence and chiseled good looks, Sharif’s fortunes quickly rose in his native Egypt, where he became a bona fide movie star. He was introduced to world audiences as Sherif Ali, the skeptical and charismatic guerrilla fighter in Lawrence Of Arabia, after being recast from a smaller role. Despite not being Lean’s first choice for the role, Sharif’s scene-stealing performance won him two Golden Globes and an Academy Award nomination.
Speaking with NPR’s Scott Simon in 2012, Sharif spoke of the bonding experience he shared with co-star Peter O’Toole. “The sky was wonderful at night, the stars were wonderful — we just sat there and talked and had some whiskey. We used to like having our whiskey at night. And we became very close friends,” he said. (Sharif and O’Toole would remain lifelong friends.) Lean would use Sharif again as the eponymous star of Dr. Zhivago, a sprawling romantic tragedy set against the back drop of the Russian Revolution. As Yuri Zhivago, Sharif proved that he could convey more with a single arresting look than many actors can express in an entire film.
In addition to his acting career, Sharif was an accomplished professional contract bridge player, touring the world, authoring books, and licensing his name to Omar Sharif On Bridge for the PC.
Spending his later life in Cairo, Sharif was a frank individualist, and had no problem taking a break from his acting career after feeling unimpressed by a string of bad movies. “To learn bad dialogue is so difficult and so boring, and to work with a stupid director who tells you to do the wrong thing, etcetera, it’s just unbearable,” admitted Sharif in a 2002 interview with The Guardian. “I didn’t mean to retire totally, but I would have retired totally if nothing good had come.” Sharif would occasionally return to the screen, however, and he enjoyed a long career as a character actor. While he usually played serious roles, he was effective in the occasional comedic cameo, including his sublimely ridiculous turn as Agent Cedric in Top Secret!.
Sharif formally retired from acting earlier this year, when it was announced that the octogenarian was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He is survived by his son and two grandsons.