Omar Sharif, one of the last matinee idols

Egyptian screen legend was as much a vision of romantic possibilities as he was an actor

 

Omar Sharif, who has died at the age of 83, will be best remembered for a film sequence in which, for much of its duration, he is barely visible on screen.

In David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, released in 1962, Sharif appears first as a dot on the horizon that gradually expands into the shape of the dangerous Sharif Ali and his camel.

Sharif was already well known in his native Egypt when Lean cast him as Lawrence’s unstable Arab ally, but the scene offered him one of the greatest entrances ever to the world stage.

Three years later, Sharif appeared in the title role of Lean’s Dr Zhivago. That adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s sweeping novel was never a critic’s favourite, but it registered huge box-office figures and turned Sharif into a glamorous, exotic superstar.

The Russian stylings inspired fashion looks and the film even gave its name to a nightclub in Dublin.

There was a time when Hollywood - always able to make “foreignness” non-specific - could have exploited his looks and that accent to the full.

Indeed, William Wyler made good use of him as smooth foil to Barbra Streisand’s buzzy firecracker in the massive hit Funny Girl in 1968.

However, the social and cultural changes that hit the industry in the early 1970s made his class of “dreamboat” exoticism redundant.

Sharif never went away though. He turned up in films such as Juggernaut and The Pink Panther Strikes Again in the 1970s.

The moustachioed star did not, however, recover the degree of international fame he enjoyed in the 1960s, when he was among the last of the matinee idols.

Sharif’s upbringing

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Sharif was born as Michel Demetri Chalhoub to a Lebanese family in Alexandria.

He was a keen sportsman as a youth and secured a degree in maths and physics at the University of Cairo.

Eventually, good looks and a degree of talent brought him to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London.

His first credited role came in 1953 and, within a few years, he had appeared in several dozen Egyptian pictures.

An intelligent man of wide interests, Sharif could have taken many roads to success.

Indeed, as Hollywood moved away from him, he became almost as famous for his skills at the bridge table as he was for his acting.

Once rated among the best in the world, he toured the world with his “Bridge Circus”, wrote well-respected columns and books on the subject, and endorsed bridge video games.

Sharif also enjoyed less cerebral games when played for high stakes. In 2003, during one such contest, he was convicted of striking a police officer in a Paris casino.

Nobody much minded. By that stage, the public rather missed the sort of playboy actor who enjoyed late nights playing smoky games of Blackjack.

He married once - to the actress Faten Hamama - and, though they divorced in 1974, he rather sweetly claimed that he never loved another woman.

An earlier romance with Streisand, a strong supporter of Israel, had almost led to the withdrawal of his Egyptian citizenship.

Later years

In later years, Sharif began to ail and, two months ago, his family confirmed that he had contracted Alzheimer’s disease.

Over the previous decades, he had appeared mainly in French and Egyptian films.

He died of a heart attack in Cairo.

They really don’t make them like that anymore. As much a vision of romantic possibilities as an actor, Sharif would not be allowed that degree of suavity in contemporary cinema.

That said, as he aged, he proved adept at conveying the sadness of vanished glamour.

He received a César Award - the “French Oscar” - for best actor for his performance in Monsieur Ibrahim in 2003. He deserved it.

A whole generation, now aged over 60, had formative first dates to see him romance Julie Christie in Zhivago. Can it have been so long ago?

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