When the former Michel Shalhoub died in Cairo this July, the era of the international star dimmed more than just a bit.
Omar Sharif, born in 1932 in Alexandria of Syrian-Lebanese descent, turned himself into an Egyptian matinee idol in the mid-Fifties with the determined and conscious intent of becoming a worldwide screen star. Hollywood accommodated when British director David Lean cast him as Arab warrior Sherif Ali in 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia.
The role proved a sensational career launch, winning Sharif an Oscar nomination and favorable comparisons with an earlier international star, Rudolph Valentino. Then Sharif appeared in the sweeping 1965 epic, Doctor Zhivago, as a German intelligence officer in 1967’s The Night of the Generals and as Barbra Streisand’s lover in her screen debut, Funny Girl.
I did three films that are classics, which is very rare in itself, and they were all made within five years, the actor told The New York Times in 1995. But by the end of the Sixties, things changed.
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 hardly starved. He in fact maintained the life of a European voluptuary almost to the end. He lived in fancy hotels. Dined out expensively. He gambled even more expensively and frequently lost.
He supported all these with appearances in nearly 120 movies and tv appearances over 60-years, working right up until this year. It wasn’t necessarily his choice. He appeared in a long string of mostly forgettable movies and tv mini-series just to pay off gambling debts.
Sharif also wrote books and a syndicated column on competitive bridge (among his devoted readers was our own Joe), and was considered to be an expert. To supplement his acting income, he among other ventures licensed his name to a perfume sold in Europe, and was affiliated with a travel agency selling cruises on the Cunard line.
His personal life was straightforward. After the end in 1974 of a 13-year marriage to Faten Hamama, a leading Egyptian actress, Sharif never remarried. The couple had a son, Tarek, whom the actor doted on — my best friend. That’s not to imply that Sharif refrained from big time womanizing.
Michael Caine, who costarred in two films with Sharif, recalls wondering why his location hotel room hadn’t been made up in days. Then Caine realized his room was a few doors down from Sharif’s. The maid made it easily to the latter’s room but somehow never progressed any farther.
Sharif’s film career is, wrote British critic David Thomson, much less interesting than the real picture of a cosmopolitan, bridge-playing Sharif, deprecating his own success and sophistication.