An internationally acclaimed actor, a citizen of the world, a passionate bridge player, and an irrefutable ladies man—there were many facets to Omar Sharif. The words “legendary” and “disarming” were often used alongside his name ever since his performances in the classics Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago put him on the global cinematic map. When news broke of the 83-year-old actor’s death, cinephiles across the Middle East and the world were deeply saddened by the loss. Sharif died of a heart attack in a Cairo hospital on July 10th. The actor had also been battling Alzheimer’s disease.
Omar Sharif was born Michel Chalhoub in April, 1932 in Alexandria to Syrian and Lebanese parents. As the only son of a prominent timber merchant, he had a good childhood; he attended an English boarding school, learned to speak five languages, and often observed his mother play cards with King Farouk of Egypt, which perhaps helped develop his own passion for cards later on in life—particularly bridge.
“Acting is my profession, bridge is my passion,” he once said, and went on to pen two books on his favorite “mind sport:” Omar Sharif’s Life in Bridge and Play More Bridge with Omar Sharif.
His rise to fame, however, came via his acting; Sharif started his career by starring in several local films before getting his big break, playing Sherif Ali in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Reportedly, Lean had another actor in mind for the role but he had the wrong eye color and so he was replaced with Sharif. The acclaimed producer and his team won seven Academy Awards for the movie. Sharif also received a Golden Globe for his performance, as well as an Oscar nomination and the credit for creating one of the most iconic characters in movie history. His entrance in the movie, riding a camel and dressed in black, made a lasting impression while his mesmerizing gaze hypnotized audiences the world over. He went on to marry and have a son with Egyptian actress Faten Hamama, with whom he filmed Siraa Fil-Wadi in 1954.
Sharif sustained the momentum of his success throughout the 1960s, playing the Russian doctor-poet in Doctor Zhivago, the Argentinean revolutionary Che Guevara in Che!, and a starring role alongside Barbara Streisand in Funny Girl. His chameleonic adaptation to such diverse roles, both culturally and thematically, proved that the actor was not a one-hit wonder in international cinema.