As a young man growing up in Alexandria, Michel Demitri Chalhoub dreamed of becoming a star in the Egyptian cinema. As Omar Sharif, he became one of the great international stars, famed for his good looks and a world-weary romanticism with particular appeal to women, who swooned over him in his signature role in Doctor Zhivago (1965). “I don’t know what sex appeal is,” he commented. “I don’t think you can have sex appeal knowingly.”
Whatever it was, it wafted off the screen. Born April 10, 1932, Chalhoub, who was of Syrian and Lebanese descent, attended Victoria College in Alexandria, where he was active in theatre. From the University of Cairo he received a degree in mathematics and physics, and upon graduation he worked with his father, a precious wood merchant. But the actor’s life called to him, and he studied the craft at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.
The acclaimed Egyptian director Youssef Chahine tapped him to star in Sira` Fi al-Wadi (1953), which was shown at the Cannes Film Festival as The Blazing Sky. The star-crossed romance, which would attain classic status, was noted for a love scene between the newcomer and popular favorite Faten Hamama, who had never consented to be kissed onscreen before. It wasn’t just acting—the two married in 1955, and the actor, raised Catholic, converted to Islam to marry her. He took the name Omar Sharif, “sharif” being Arabic for “noble.”
The 50s were a golden age for Egyptian cinema, and they were its gilded couple, appearing in several hits. Sharif’s fame brought him to the attention of director David Lean, who was planning to shoot his epic Lawrence of Arabia (1962) in the Middle East. He was cast in a small role as T.E. Lawrence’s guide, then shifted to the key part of Sherif Ali, who makes a grand entrance, shooting the guide dead and later befriending the British officer, played by Peter O’Toole in his first significant movie. Fifty years later, he recalled in a National Public Radio interview that it was Lean who gave him a mustache to wear (he was rarely without one in his international films), while in O’Toole he found a “complete brother” and a close friend. (O’Toole called his co-star “Freddy,” joking that he couldn’t believe that anyone could have a name as fanciful as “Omar Sharif.”) He also suspected that he had been cast in a flop, a four-hour movie “with no women, with no loving, and with no action.”
Despite these shortcomings, critics and audiences alike embraced the literate and beautifully crafted biopic, which won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and landed Sharif an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. His overseas career was launched. Sharif’s next starring role, in Lean’s adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago, would be his greatest success. An admirer of the book, a love story that spans the Russian revolution, Sharif asked Lean if he could play the supporting role of Pasha, a political activist, and was once again surprised by the director when Lean offered him the lead. Lean’s instincts were correct: Sharif’s soulful handsomeness was ideal for Yuri Zhivago, a medic and a poet, torn between family life and his passion for Lara (Julie Christie), Pasha’s wife, amidst unrest and upheaval. Fueled by composer Maurice Jarre’s “Lara’s Theme,” the movie was an enormous hit, if more with ticket buyers than with critics. It also gave its star some time with his eight-year-old son Tarek, who played Zhivago’s boy in the film.
Sharif would have one more signature role. Another legendary director, William Wyler, was having trouble casting the part of Nick Arnstein, the gambler who charms entertainer Fanny Brice, the subject of the musical Funny Girl (1968). Wyler noticed Sharif having lunch in the commissary at Columbia Pictures and the part was his, not without controversy. 1967’s Six-Day War between Israel and neighboring states including Egypt was hot copy as the film went into production, and the Egyptian press demanded that Sharif’s citizenship be revoked when a romantic publicity shot of Sharif and star Barbra Streisand, a Jew and a supporter of Israel, hit the papers. Streisand stepped in to defuse the crisis, announcing, “Egypt angry? You should hear what my Aunt Sarah said!” The show went on, earning Streisand, in her film debut, an Oscar, making Columbia a fortune (it was the biggest hit of 1968), and giving Sharif, the quintessentially irresistible “bad boyfriend,” the opportunity to appear in the 1975 sequel.
Funny Girl was one of the few hits Sharif would enjoy past the 1960s. What he called the life of a “lonely man,” living in hotels on location, led to the breakup of his marriage in 1966. (He and Streisand had an affair while shooting Funny Girl, but celebrity romances were otherwise rare for the great screen lover, who never remarried after his divorce from Hamama in 1974.) And his other movies, by his own admission, were “rubbish”—he and O’Toole were implausibly cast as Nazi officers in The Night of the Generals (1967), and there were other indignities, like playing the black-hatted cowboy “Colorado” in the all-star stiff Mackenna’s Gold (1969), and, worse, the Argentine guerrilla Che Guevara in Che! (1969), with Pennsylvanian Jack Palance as Fidel Castro.
But they paid the bills for an increasingly extravagant lifestyle, as he started a second career as a world-champion contract bridge player, writing a newspaper column and books about the game and lending his name to a video game. “I’d rather be playing bridge than making a bad movie,” he groused, understandably. There were a few good ones, however, as he spent more time in French casinos than on sets. In The Burglars (1971), Sharif is atypically villainous as a corrupt Greek cop pursuing jewel thief Jean-Paul Belmondo. Blake Edwards’ The Tamarind Seed (1974) cast him as another Russian, this one mixed up in love and Cold War spy games with British government functionary Julie Andrews. He’s wry, and believably heroic, as an ocean liner captain in Richard Lester’s Juggernaut (1974), handling a bomb threat with disposal expert Richard Harris. Nor was he above self-parody, sending himself up in the comedies The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) and Top Secret! (1984).
When his grandchildren began to tease him about his many terrible credits, Sharif decided to take inventory, and left acting for stretches as he wound down his bridge career and concentrated on family life. He had a final Hollywood hit with the horseracing adventure Hidalgo (2004), playing a sheik opposite Viggo Mortensen, and narrated the prehistoric saga 10,000 BC (2008). “You don’t need an Egyptian to play an Italian,” he said, as his decades as a go-to star for multiethnic parts ended.
He would, however, agree to play a Turk. One of his proudest roles, for which he won a Cesar, the French equivalent of the Oscar, was in the arthouse success Monsieur Ibrahim (2003). In the 60s-set film, Sharif plays an elderly Muslim shopkeeper who takes an abandoned Parisian boy, a Jew, under his wing. “Slowness is the key of happiness,” says Ibrahim, and as Sharif withdrew from the limelight, perhaps he found the same key.