The legendary Omar Sharif — Sherif Ali, Yuri Zhivago, Nicky Arnstein — has passed at age 83. Never just an actor but a man about town. A European gambler for decades, quite the bon vivant and ladies man in the ’60s and ’70s. Always cast as exotic, enigmatic, well-mannered fellows with a smooth line, Sharif was on top for 13 years cruise (’62 to ’75) in a run of Hollywood films that ranged from world-class to tolerable to awful, but you have to expect a mixture. At least he had that golden six year period between ’62 and ’68.
Sharif was forever defined by his striking, career-making English-language debut as Sherif Ali ibn Kharish, a friend and ally of Peter O’Toole‘s T.E. Lawrence in David Lean‘s Lawrence of Arabia. And then by his lead role in Lean’s Dr. Zhivago, giving a restrained and dignified performance as a humanist physician swept along and crushed by the Russian revolution. Sharif also scored as gambler Nicky Arnstein in William Wyler‘s Funny Girl (’68) opposite Barbra Streisand.
Sharif made a lot of crap in the ’60s and early ’70s — The Yellow Rolls Royce, Genghis Khan, Marco the Magnificent, The Poppy Is Also a Flower, The Night of the Generals (a terrible decision to play a German officer in World War II, requiring heavy makeup that didn’t work), Mackenna’s Gold, Che (another big mistake that definitely compromised his Lawrence/Zhivago halo), The Horseman, Mysterious Island, The Tamarind Seed, et. al.
And then God smiled again when Sharif landed a strong supporting role as a cruise ship captain in Richard Lester‘s brilliant Juggernaut (’74). His last half-decent role in the big-time was his second performance as Arnstein (a supporting part, almost a cameo) in Funny Lady (’75).
And that was pretty much it for almost 30 years. As the movies got worse and worse, Sharif’s life became defined more and more by gambling, cards (he was particularly skilled at bridge), casinos, racehorses and living in hotels. Millions were reportedly lost at the tables. A life of alone-ness but not “lonely,” or so Sharif claimed in interviews. A refined, cultivated fellow but with the usual vices associated with nocturnal intrigues in tuxedos. He probably drank a little more than he should have. He reportedly had a 100-cigarette-per-day habit for decades on end.
Something in Sharif obviously resisted commitment and roots. That’s usually about anger. His mother, Claire Chalhoub, was a flamboyant gambler herself, “notorious as the only woman who could match Egypt’s billionaire King Farouk for high stakes,” according to the Daily Mail piece. “Claire was far from maternal: aged ten, Sharif was sent to boarding school, Cairo’s snobbish Victoria College, where Claire hoped the harsh regime and basic diet would make him lose his puppy fat.”
Sharif was quite the hound in his day. He reportedly had affairs with Barbra Streisand, Catherine Deneuve, Tuesday Weld, Diane McBain, Ingrid Bergman.
Before his Lawrence breakthrough Sharif was a popular actor and then a star of Egyptian cinema for eight years (’54 to ’62).
A recent Daily Mail story claims that after Sharif lost 750,000 pounds in one night at roulette, he was forced to sell his house in Paris. He was quoted as saying “I don’t own anything at all apart from a few clothes…I’m all alone and completely broke…everything could have been so different if only I had found the right woman.”
From the same story: “His gambling addiction, he admitted, was madness, but he could not stop. He blamed boredom, and the loneliness of living out of a suitcase. His agent became used to Sharif’s desperate calls, demanding work so that he could pay urgent debts. Often, the actor even had to reverse the call charges. But however many shoddy movies he made, he was always ‘one film behind my debts’.”
But fortune smiled again in ’03 when Sharif delivered an emotional, widely admired performance in a good film — Monsieur Ibrahim — for which Sharif won a César Award for Best Actor 2004 as well as an audience award for Best Actor at the ’03 Venice Film Festival.
Sharif became short-tempered when he entered his 70s, to go by three incidents. He received a one-month suspended prison sentence in ’03 for striking a police officer in a suburban Parisian casino, was found guilty of assaulting a Beverly Hills parking lot attendant and breaking his nose” in ’07, and then reportedly hit a presumably obnoxious female fan who wanted to have her photo taken with him on the red carpet at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival in 2011.
A while ago Sharif moved back to Egypt to be closer to his family. It was recently announced that the poor guy was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Sharif died of a heart attack.
“He also had a very kind and warm side, if you knew him,” says restoration guru Robert Harris, who hung with Sharif during the 1989 promotional tour for the restored Lawrence of Arabia.
“When we opened Lawrence at the Uptown in DC, neither he nor I could sit through it again — it had been 3 or 4 screenings in as many days — and took a walk,” Harris recalls. “When we returned, I wanted to introduce him to the projection staff. So we went to the booth, and Keith Madden, the projectionist, was about to do a changeover. On screen was that huge two-shot of Peter and Omar.
“Omar put his finger to his lips and walked up directly behind Keith, who whose eyes were on the screen via the porthole. When Keith turned around, he was face to face with Omar, in a RBCU (i.e., really big close-up). His words: “Oh, shit!” Omar’s response was something along the lines of “I’ve had more temperate greetings in my time.”
This is quite a good interview, particularly starting around the one-third mark: