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It was with sadness that I read of the passing of Omar Sharif on July 10, 2015 in Cairo, Egypt. The actor came into this world as Michel Demitri Chalhoub. He first came to my attention in the movie Dr. Zhivago with his dark good looks and smoldering eyes. Even though the movie was rather heavy with scenes from the Russian Revolution it had that special kind of romance that turned male stars into symbols of romance for women everywhere. I believe this movie did what Gone With the Wind had done so many years earlier for Clark Gable who played Rhett Butler. Suddenly women all over the world were looking for their own Rhett Butler or Yuri Zhivago and would sigh over these two actors. It is ironic to think that the actor died of a heart attack just as in his role of Yuri Zhivago, we see Zhivago clutch at his heart and collapse on the street toward the end of the movie.
His First Acting Role
Omar Sharif first appeared on the screen in a 1954 melodrama called Struggle in the Valley also known as The Blazing Sky. In this movie, Sharif played a young, college-educated peasant who began a war of his own again a local Pasha, who was the father of the woman he loved. The role of the woman was portrayed by actress Faten Hamama, who would later marry Sharif. Born in Alexandria, Egypt Sharif soon became a most sought after Egyptian actor. In this film, he learned quite a bit about acting under the eye of director Youssef Chahine, one of Egypt’s most important filmmakers. The ending of this movie was most dramatic with both main actors wounded and leaving several bodies in their wake. It was after this first film that Sharif showed the talent that he had. He became well-known in the Egyptian film industry often having Hamama as his leading lady.
'Lawerence of Arabia'
Sharif spoke Arabic, English, Greek, French, Spanish and Italian. He made his English-speaking debut in the film Lawrence of Arabia. This part was meant for French actor Maurice Ronet but when director David Lean, looking for Arab actors who spoke English, saw Sharif’s photo he knew he has found the right actor for his film. Lean met with Sharif and became impressed with his acting, still thinking of placing him in a smaller role. It was a bit later that Lean knew Sharif should play the part of Ali. When the movie opens upon Sharif as Ali coming through a shimmering mirage in the desert and meeting T.E. Lawrence portrayed by Peter O’Toole it was clear that Sharif with his calmness could stand up to O’Toole’s theatrics. Sharif received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role and won a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture and shared a Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year –Actor. This role certainly established him as an actor to take notice of.
The roles that Sharif could expect to be awarded were roles such as an Armenian king, a Mongol conqueror, an Austrian prince and other such roles. After his success in Lawrence of Arabia David Lean cast Sharif in the role of Yuri Zhivago in the screen adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s novel Dr. Zhivago. I don’t think it would have been at all a good choice if Lean had gone with his first thought—giving Sharif the role of Strelnikov, the idealistic student and revolutionary.
It was the role of Zhivago that gave Sharif the status of being a romantic actor. Another actor up for this role was Paul Newman. Finally, Sharif landed the role of the sympathetic doctor, poet, and lover. Sharif did justice to the role and even managed to make women sigh even though he fell in love with a woman other than his wife. The romantic scenes with the background of the wonderful music of “Lara’s Theme” is worth watching over and over again. Lean soon realized the Sharif was able to express much emotion with just his smoldering, dark eyes. So in the scene where he first professes his love for Lara portrayed by Julie Christie the actor is in the shadows and you only get to see his eyes. When the Tsar’s dragoons mow down peaceful protestors in the street once again we see Zhivago’s anguished reaction through Sharif’s eyes.
'Funny Girl' and Other Roles
Omar Sharif returned to the Egyptian film industry but other roles kept coming. I thought he cut a most dashing figure as the love interest of a plain Jewish girl named Fanny Brice portrayed by Barbara Streisand. The two actors literally blazed the screen in Funny Girl and did it one more time in Funny Lady. Sharif returned to Egypt at the personal invitation of President Anwar Sadat and appeared in some local productions. He once again played with Peter O’Toole in The Rainbow Thief in 1990 but this film didn’t bring him much success. He played the captain in the thriller Juggernaut in 1974. Other roles included Top Secret! in 1984 and The Thirteenth Warrior in 1999.
Reputation as a Great Lover
Sharif achieved international stardom and became known as a great lover. Sharif brought to the screen that incredible romantic leading man aura that other actors like Cary Grant had also done. I know I would have loved to have seen him in some of the roles that heartthrob Rudolph Valentino played in his time. In the last years of his life, Sharif spent his time in Cairo and in a hotel in Paris, France. Of course, you could also find him on the French Riviera in the Monte Carlo Casino. His films make him immortal and still a very big screen presence. We will miss you, Omar Sharif, as you set the heavens ablaze with your incredible personality.