Handsome 'sheikh' broke hearts on and off screen
Published 11/07/2015 | 02:30
Omar Sharif, the Egyptian-born film star, who has died aged 83, was one of cinema's gentlest and most civilised exponents of romantic heroism.
With his dark flashing eyes, black curly hair, prominent moustache, brigand-like looks, refined features and oily, pained little smile, he set millions of female hearts a-flutter in a Hollywood tradition that went back to Rudolph Valentino.
Although Sharif's career was often blighted by miscasting and poor scripts, he was a box-office attraction from the word go as a friendly sheikh gazing across the shimmering desert with Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia - his first English-speaking role after years of stardom in the Middle East. Although he was condemned to appear after that in a series of unimaginative blockbusters as an exotic lover, his screen personality, if sometimes dull, was always warm, sincere and most courteous in such box-office hits as The Fall of the Roman Empire, Doctor Zhivago and Funny Girl.
Well-bred, well-mannered and not without a streak of nobility, Sharif was among the least demanding of actors.
He had a most endearing way of looking on the verge of tears when unable to gain access to a loved one, and starred opposite some of the most charming actresses of his generation, from Sophia Loren, Ingrid Bergman and Anouk Aimée to Catherine Deneuve, Julie Christie and Barbra Streisand.
On the whole, though, nothing he subsequently did on screen could compare to that sparklingly authentic first appearance, on a camel as an Arab chief in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia.
It brought him a nomination for an Academy Award, and leading parts in many other epics as assorted princes and warriors, though artistically speaking he seemed happiest in the company of, or pining for, beautiful women.
Sharif was a civilised man with cosmopolitan tastes and his first love was often said to be bridge. He found it hard, given the quality of most of his films, to take them as seriously as the pleasures of contract bridge; and by the 197Os he had begun to win as much acclaim and admiration for his poise and prowess at the bridge table as for his conquests on the screen.
Off it, he also famously conducted a series of well-chronicled courtships of leading ladies, former leading ladies or leading ladies from other films, notably Miss Streisand, Catherine Deneuve, and Dyan Cannon.
"I definitely want to do mainly theatre now," he would say when one of his blockbusters was released to little critical acclaim, "or two weeks in a film for a remarkable amount of money." In 1983, he starred in a West End revival of The Sleeping Prince.
He was a syndicated columnist on bridge for various papers and periodicals, also writing a book and making a video on the subject.
The son of a wealthy timber merchant of Lebanese and Syrian descent, Michel Demitri Chaloub was born in Alexandria on April 10 1932 and had an essentially European education at Victoria College, Cairo, where he read mathematics and physics. After five years as a salesman in the family's lumber import business, he was offered by an old family friend (Youssef Shahin), one of Egypt's better film directors, a leading role in The Blazing Sun (1954).
Its star, Faten Hamama, was already one of Arabic cinema's favourite actresses. Their partnership flourished both on an off screen, and they were married in 1955. In the next five years Sharif, after adopting the Muslim religion and changing his name to Omar El-Sharif, made 23 Arabic-speaking films, notably Beginning and End (196O). He also starred in two French productions, Jacques Baratier's Goha (1958) and as a sheikh in The Fabulous Adventures of Marco Polo (1964).
Meanwhile, dropping the El from his name, he triumphed in his first international film as the fierce but faithful tribesman ally of O'Toole's Lawrence of Arabia (1962), vying sometimes with O'Toole for the handsomer profile.
His Oscar nomination marked him out as a new charmer to be exploited by the Hollywood and European cinema; and for a while all went well.
It had long been his ambition to achieve international film stardom, and it soon came in two of the biggest box office successes of the 1960s, Lean's epic about the Russian revolution and its aftermath, Doctor Zhivago (1965) and William Wyler's musical comedy, Funny Girl (1968).
As Pasternak's handsome, ingratiating young Russian doctor and poet in Zhivago, Sharif may have struck the critics as gravely miscast as a hero supposed to register simultaneously a response to other people's thoughts about him as well as his own musings on war and peace; but whenever he fell to thinking of Julie Christie, he justified his presence as cinema's new heart-throb.
And as the no-good, suave Jewish-American gambler to Streisand's Fanny Brice in Funny Girl he showed another, more dramatically interesting side to a talent which was rarely going to yield its true potential as long as it was immersed in such big productions.