Critic's Notebook: Omar Sharif, the Last of Cinema's International Playboys

Doctor Zhivago Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Photofest

Doctor Zhivago Still - H 2015

The 'Dr. Zhivago' actor's exotic looks and leading-man grace helped make him one of the first Middle Eastern stars to conquer hearts — and the box office — in the West.

Omar Sharif was a suave matinee idol of the old school, whose velvet-lined charm came with a side order of twinkle-eyed mischief. The Egyptian-born screen star, who died today from a heart attack at 83, also made history as one of the first Middle Eastern sex symbols to win hearts, awards and major box office numbers across the globe.

Sharif had the urbane air of a natural-born aristocrat, equally at home in a palace or a casino, a fancy London gentleman's club or a smoky Parisian jazz bar. Dapper and debonair, he walked into film festival press conferences like he had just stepped off a yacht. Blessed with mesmerizing dark eyes, killer cheekbones and a gap-toothed smile, he was almost shockingly beautiful in his youth, and remained strikingly handsome long into old age. Deliciously exotic to western cinema audiences, Sharif's looks became his career springboard, but arguably limited his choice of roles in later life.

Sharif's life was rich in fiction and role-playing from the start, even off screen. Born Michel Demitri Chalhoub in Alexandria in 1932, he later legally adopted his new screen name, which means "noble" in Arabic. He was raised Catholic but converted to Islam in order to marry his screen co-star Faten Hamama in 1955. And despite being Egypt's most famous screen export, he mostly acted in English and French, playing Nazis and Russians, Mexicans and Italians, Genghis Khan and Che Guevara. In less enlightened times, whenever Hollywood needed an alluringly swarthy foreigner, he was top of the casting list.

His Egyptian film career began in 1954, but Sharif's international reputation went supernova eight years later thanks to British director David Lean, who cast him in his two most feted historical epics. In Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Sharif almost outshone leading man Peter O'Toole in his role as Sherif Ali, a fictionalized composite of various Arab tribal warriors who fought alongside Lawrence in the Middle East during World War I. Emerging from the shimmering desert heat haze like a mysterious force of nature, Sharif's smoldering performance radiates devilish charisma, but also a knowing wit that helps undercut the film's questionable Orientalist gaze.

Initially earmarked for a smaller role, Sharif was upgraded to playing Ali after Alain Delon and Horst Buchholz both declined. Oblivious and single-minded, Lean was never troubled by racially correct casting. He also gave Sharif the mustache that would become a signature for the rest of his career. Lawrence of Arabia won seven Oscars and three nominations, including one for Sharif as Best Supporting Actor.

According to Sharif, Lean only cast him because he had attended a British-style private school in Cairo, where he learned English and studied theater. His mother had sent him there as an overweight 10-year-old, correctly reasoning that the notoriously inedible British cuisine would curtail his eating habits. He also later claimed that Lean "hated actors" but made an exception for him. "He actually liked me very much," Sharif told The Guardian in 2012. "I was one of the only actors he actually liked, in all his life."

Three years after Lawrence of Arabia, Lean showed his love for Sharif again, this time promoting him to leading man in Doctor Zhivago (1965). As a courageous man of principle standing up for love and poetry in post-revolutionary Russia, Sharif displays his romantic hero range to the fullest. More than any other role, Yuri Zhivago cemented his screen image as the soulful, sensitive, sad-eyed lover from the mysterious East. Lean's adaptation of Boris Pasternak's epic novel was a box-office sensation, winning five Oscars and a Golden Globe for Sharif. Part of its success lay in its Cold War propaganda value, as both book and film were banned in Soviet Russia.

Sharif's career peaked early, and he arguably never topped his work with Lean. His next major role was in Funny Girl (1968), causing outraged headlines back home in Egypt when pictures emerged of him kissing his Jewish-American co-star Barbra Streisand. He later reprised the role in Funny Lady (1975), both films revealing a flair for light-touch comedy that would become his chief cinematic currency in the decades ahead. Sharif spent much of the 1970s and 1980s spoofing his suave screen image in small comic roles, from The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) to Top Secret! (1984)

But as the quality of his roles declined, his bon vivant reputation kicked into high gear. Separating from his wife in 1966, he embraced a hard-partying lifestyle with his Lawrence of Arabia co-star O'Toole, boasting about their epic binge-drinking, bar-hopping, girl-chasing exploits in his shamelessly sexist 1977 autobiography The Eternal Male. He also went professional with his love of card games, founding the Omar Sharif Bridge Circus in 1967. Playing exhibition matches all over the globe, he became one of the world's top 50 bridge players, authoring several books on the game. His partners included the Shah of Iran and his wife.

In later life, Sharif dismissed his ladykiller reputation as a fanciful exaggeration, insisting his sexual conquests amounted to "fewer than 10 women." True or not, he was linked to a string of famous lovers, and admitted to fathering at least one illegitimate child. Finally divorcing Hamama in 1974, he never remarried, spending much of his middle-aged bachelor years living in hotels in France and Egypt.

Sharif was known for his private warmth and generosity, once reportedly donating his hefty weekly salary from a West End theatre show as a birthday present to his cleaner. But his reputation for unruffled sophistication took a knock in his autumn years with a series of hot-tempered outbursts. In 2003, he spent a night behind bars and received a one-month suspended prison sentence for assaulting a police officer in a Paris casino after gambling away around $300,000. In 2007, he broke the nose of a parking attendant in Beverly Hills. Four years later, he struck a woman who was queuing to have her picture taken with him in Qatar.

Sharif was a heavy smoker until he underwent triple bypass surgery in 1992, and suffered a mild heart attack two years later. Though semi-retired from acting for most of the last two decades, he scored one last great lead role in Monsieur Ibrahim, a low-key French drama about a Muslim shopkeeper who befriends a Jewish boy. It was, Sharif said, just "a little statement about loving each other and being able to live with each other." It won him a Cesar, the French Oscar, as Best Actor.

With Sharif's passing, it feels like the last of cinema's legendary playboys has finally cashed in his chips and left the casino. His screen legacy may be spotty, but he was still a towering and groundbreaking figure in world cinema, with a six-decade career that included at least two immortal blockbusters. He also understood that acting, like gambling, is all down to random luck. "I didn't do anything on purpose," Sharif said in 2012. "I did what I liked and refused what I didn't like. That's all."