Arab Cinema Loses Beloved Actor, Omar Sharif

July 11, 2015

By Nabih Bulos

Egyptian actor Omar Al-Sharif, arguably the most famous Arab actor to make his mark on the world stage, died on Friday, his agent reported.

Born in 1932 to a Melkite Greek Catholic family in his native Alexandria in Egypt as Michel Demetri Chalhoub, Sharif quickly rose through the ranks of Egyptian cinema where he starred beside his future -equally famous- wife Faten Hamama.. He chose the moniker “Omar Al-Sharif,” a Muslim-sounding name that, according to Shalhoub in his memoirs, would increase his international appeal.

Sharif, who died at the age of 83 from Alzheimer’s disease, captivated audiences in more than 20 films in his native Egypt before his his tall, dark and handsome looks catapulted him to international fame in seminal films such as “Funny Girl” and “Dr. Zhivago.”

But it was his role in David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” as the charismatic companion of King Faisal, the Hashemite would-be architect of Arab nation-building aspirations, that first brought him to Hollywood’s attention – much to Sharif’s surprise.

“I… never thought anyone would go to see the film- three hours and 40 minute of desert, and no girls!” he said in a 2012 interview with the British newspaper the Independent.

But even acting giants such as the venerable Alec Guinness had something to learn from Sharif, according to Gene Phillips’s “Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean.”

“I listened carefully to Omar’s accent,” says Guinness in Phillips’s book, “and used it for Faisal, who was, like Omar, an Arab speaking English.'”

In 1968’s “Funny Girl,” Sharif courted controversy, acting and kissing his Jewish co-star Barbra Streisand less than one year after the Six Day war between Egypt and Israel in 1967. It almost cost him his Egyptian citizenship.

Yet it was in that role, playing con artist and professional gambler Nicky Arnstein, that the real Sharif appeared.

An inveterate bridge player (ranked in the top-50 bridge players in the world) who reportedly once lost a 4.5 million GBP mansion on the Spanish island of Lanzarote only a few days after he bought it in the 1970’s, Sharif was known to take on questionable roles to finance his gambling habit.

After almost three decades of relative obscurity, Sharif garnered critical acclaim in 2003’s “Monsieur Ibrahim,” playing the role of a Turkish Muslim grocer who becomes the father figure of a Jewish boy in working-class neighborhood in 1960’s Paris.