Omar Sharif, Suave Star of 'Doctor Zhivago,' Dies at 83

Omar Sharif Ace Up My Sleeve - H 2015
Courtesy Everett Collection

Omar Sharif Ace Up My Sleeve - H 2015

The Egyptian screen idol first made his mark in another great David Lean epic, 'Lawrence of Arabia,' then starred opposite Barbra Streisand in the two 'Funny Girl' films.

Omar Sharif, the Egyptian matinee idol who enthralled audiences around the world with his performances in the sweeping David Lean epics Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia, has died. He was 83.

Sharif, who also was known for playing the smooth gambler/con man Nicky Arnstein opposite Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl (1968) and its 1975 sequel, died of a heart attack this afternoon in a hospital in Cairo, his longtime agent Steve Kenis confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter.

It was reported in May that Sharif had been battling Alzheimer's.

With his deep brown eyes, thick mustache and silken black hair, Sharif became an international sex symbol after he portrayed the Russian poet-doctor Yuri Zhivago in love with Julie Christie's Lara in Doctor Zhivago (1965), recipient of five Academy Awards.

Sharif had won widespread attention three years earlier when he received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor, as well as a Golden Globe, for his performance as T.E. Lawrence's right-hand man Sherif Ali in the spectacular Peter O'Toole starrer Lawrence of Arabia (1962), winner of seven Oscars, including best picture.

Sharif, who spoke five languages, limned an array of nationalities in dozens of motion pictures in a career that spanned more than six decades.

He also had a long obsession with the "mind sport" of bridge. A onetime grandmaster and top 50 player in the world, he was said to be the captain of the Egyptian team in the Bridge Olympiads of the 1960s and was never far from a bridge table, spending vast amounts of time in the game's meccas of London, Juan-les-Pins and Trouville in France.

"Acting is my profession; bridge is my passion," he once said.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, he co-authored with Charles Goren a syndicated bridge column that ran in hundreds of newspapers. Sharif also was the face of the Omar Sharif Bridge Circus, which featured a caravan of players making publicized stops in cities around the world in an attempt to put the card game on the map as a spectator sport.

He also penned two well-regarded books about the game: Omar Sharif's Life in Bridge, published in 1983, and 1994's Play More Bridge With Omar Sharif.

He told The Guardian in an April interview that he stopped playing about six years ago "when I stopped being good enough." However, he still indulged his passion for race horses.

Of Lebanese and Syrian lineage, he was born Michel Shalhoub on April 10, 1932, in Alexandria, the son of a prominent timber merchant. The family moved to Cairo when he was young, and his mother played cards with King Farouk.

He attended the English boarding school Victor College, where he studied mathematics and physics. Born a Catholic, he converted to Islam and changed his name.

Sharif scored the lead in a 1954 Egyptian film, Siraa Fil-Wadi (also known as The Blazing Sun or Struggle in the Valley), starring opposite Faten Hamama, a leading lady in the region. The two married in 1955, a union that ended during the filming of Doctor Zhivago. (Sharif never married again.)

Flashing his famous gap-toothed smile and Old World charm, he soon became Egypt's most popular male star and went on to topline 26 Egyptian and two French films during the next several years. Lean's selection of him to play Ali in Lawrence of Arabia — about the life of dashing English adventurer and army officer Lawrence, played by O'Toole — changed his life.

"I was taken in a plane to the desert to meet David," he told The Guardian, "and as we came in to land we could see him sitting all by himself. We landed right next to him, but he didn't move one step. When I got off the plane, he didn't say hello. He simply walked round me to see my profile.

"Finally, he said, ‘That's very good, Omar. Let's go to the makeup tent.' I tried on a mustache, and it was decided I would grow one. I've shaved it off for a couple of films, but otherwise I've had it ever since."

He and O'Toole famously were arrested the night before the Hollywood premiere of Lawrence of Arabia when they were with comic Lenny Bruce as he shot up with a hypodermic syringe.

O'Toole was said to be Lean's original choice to play Yuri in Doctor Zhivago, which was based on the Boris Pasternak novel that is set around the Russian Civil War of 1918-21. Michael Caine says that he suggested to Lean that Sharif be given the role of the title character.

For the film, he recalled that Lean asked him to "do something extremely difficult for an actor. ‘I want you to do nothing. Not to emote, not to have a reaction,'" the director said.

Lean realized that it would be difficult to show onscreen that a man is a poet. "We can't have him reciting poetry," Sharif said. "So we decided the whole film would be seen through [Zhivago's] eyes. We can show beauty, the leaves on a tree in autumn, flowers in the wind … "

The 3-hour, 17-minute film, which was shot mostly in Spain over 13 months, was a huge box-office hit. Adjusted for inflation, it is the eighth-highest-grossing movie in domestic history (it raked in $111.7 million originally, $1.03 billion in today's dollars, according to Box Office Mojo).

Sharif also played the title character in Genghis Khan (1965) and portrayed Che Guevara in Che! (1969).

His other notable early films include The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), Behold a Pale Horse (1964), Marco the Magnificent (1965), The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964), The Night of the Generals (1967), Mayerling (1968), Mackenna's Gold (1969), The Appointment (1969), The Horsemen (1971) and The Tamarind Seed (1974).

His career waned at the end of the 1960s.

"This cultural revolution happened with the youth movement, and the major studios ceased to have the same influence," he said in a 1995 interview with The New York Times. "There was a rise of young, talented directors, but they were making films about their own societies. There was no more room for a foreigner, so suddenly there were no more parts."

Sharif came back with Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran (2003), a French film about a Muslim shopkeeper who befriends a Jewish boy. For that, he won the audience award for best actor at the Venice Film Festival.

In 2004, he played a breeder of the world's finest stallions in the Disney film Hidalgo, which revolved around a 3,000-mile trans-Arabian horse race.

Later this year, Sharif can be seen in the educational short film 1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham. His character helps his granddaughter with a challenging homework assignment about Ibn Al-Haytham, the 11th century Arab scientist who made significant contributions to the principles of optics and visual perception.

Said producer and director Ahmed Salim in a statement: "Sharif came out of retirement specifically to do this film as he strongly believed it would help educate children all over the world about the origins of the scientific method, light science and the camera obscura."

Sharif's association with Hollywood, in particular his work with Jews, led him to be castigated by certain factions within his own country. Notably, the Egyptian press campaigned to revoke his citizenship after a Funny Girl publicity photo showing he and Streisand kissing was released to newspapers.

"I told them neither in my professional nor private life do I ask a girl her nationality or religion when I kiss her," he said in the Times interview.

Said Streisand in a statement: "Omar was my first leading man in the movies. He was handsome, sophisticated and charming. He was a proud Egyptian, and in some people's eyes, the idea of casting him in Funny Girl was considered controversial. Yet somehow, under the direction of William Wyler, the romantic chemistry between Nicky Arnstein and Fanny Brice transcended stereotypes and prejudice. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to work with Omar, and I'm profoundly sad to hear of his passing."

He wrote The Eternal Male, an autobiography that was published in 1977. A blurb from the book reads:

"He is every woman's ideal lover. He was catapulted to stardom in Lawrence of Arabia and since has enjoyed the fruits of an internationally successful film career. His life has been equally charmed at the gaming tables. He has wooed and won some of the world's most famous women. When he hit Hollywood it was like Valentino reborn. He is Omar Sharif."

Survivors include his son son, Tare, who played young Yuri in Doctor Zhivago, and grandson Omar Sharif Jr.

Alex Ritman contributed to this report.

Twitter: @mikebarnes4

July 10, 12:55 p.m. and 1:35 p.m. Added information about the film 1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham and a statement from Streisand.