“In these times, when we’re living with conflicts all over the place, I thought it would be nice to make a small picture with tolerance in it, and to say that we can live together and love each other, no matter what race or religion we are.” – Omar Sharif about the movie Monsieur Ibrahim
Omar Sharif was one of the world’s biggest movie stars of the 1960s and the first Arab actor to achieve worldwide fame.
Born in Alexandria, Egypt to a Melkite Greek Catholic family of Lebanese descent, Sharif’s given name at birth was Michel Dimitri Shalhoub. He was educated at Victoria College, Alexandria where he showed a flair for languages, before proceeding to Cairo University where he bagged a degree in Mathematics and Physics.
After a short stint working at his father’s wood business, he went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London to study acting. He made his first movie, Siraa Fil Wadi (The Blazing Sun) in 1954 at the age of 22, and soon became an established star on the Egyptian movie scene. His popularity skyrocketed in the Arab world when he changed his name to Omar Sharif and converted to Islam in order to marry popular actress and compatriot Faten Hamama in 1955.
Omar Sharif’s big break on the world stage came through his debut English-language role as Sharif Ali Ibn El-Karish in the movie Lawrence of Arabia. For his part in the 1962 historical epic directed by David Lean which starred Peter O’Toole, Sharif got an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and two Golden Globe awards for Best Supporting Actor (Motion Picture) and New Star of the Year.
Over the next couple of years, Sharif was a feature in several movies and soon teamed up again with Lean to play the lead role in the 1965 hit, Doctor Zhivago which bagged 10 Oscar nominations. Although he did not get an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, he received the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama for his role in the movie.
Omar Sharif courted controversy when he starred in Funny Girl (1968) alongside Barbara Streisand. In the movie, the pair played a couple and shared a kiss on set which outraged the Egyptian public because of the Egypt-Israel war that took place around that period. The movie was banned in Egypt and Sharif’s citizenship was almost revoked by the government.
While Sharif’s popularity as an actor continued to rise, he also gained a reputation as an accomplished contract bridge player, and was ranked among the top 50 players in the world at a time. Several books on bridge were either author or co-authored by him, while he co-wrote a syndicated bridge column for the Chicago Tribune between the 70s and 80s.
As the years rolled by, Sharif began to decline offers to appear in movies, claiming he had lost his “self-respect and dignity.” However, he did appear in a couple of films the 90s and in the new millennium. In 2003, he played the lead role in Monsieur Ibrahim to critical acclaims and received the César Award for Best Actor. Sharif’s character was a Muslim shopkeeper in Paris who adopts a Jewish orphan boy.
Sharif’s later years were spent with family in Cairo and sometimes in Paris. His marriage to Faten ended in a divorce in 1974 and Sharif never married again. The marriage produce a son, Tarek who was born in 1957 and appeared in Doctor Zhivago as the young title character.
Sharif’s family announced he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease in May 2015. On the 10th of July, less than six months after the death of Faten Hamama, Omar Sharif the iconic Egyptian actor passed on after suffering a heart attack.
Did You Know?
- Omar Sharif spoke English, Arabic, Spanish, Greek and French fluently.
- A chain smoker, it was reputed that Sharif smoked 100 cigarettes in a day. He however quit smoking after a triple heart bypass in 1992.
- Sharif’s character in Lawrence of Arabia was introduced with one of the longest and most impressive ‘delayed entrances’ ever filmed.
- In 2004, he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the organizers of the Dubai International Film Festival.
- Apart from acting and bridge, Omar Sharif was a fan horse racing and passionate gambler. He is reputed to have lost the sum of £750,000 in one night playing roulette.
- In November 2005, Sharif was awarded the inaugural Sergei Eisenstein Medal by UNESCO for his contribution to world film and cultural diversity.
- Sharif was a big fan of Hull City FC in England and the University of Hull awarded him in 2010 an honorary degree.
- As an actor, he had over a hundred movie credits; the last being in 2015 for 1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham, where he played dual roles as grandfather and narrator.
- Omar Sharif died of a heart attack on the 10th July 2015, and his funeral was held two days later at the Grand Mosque of Mushir Tantawi in Cairo. The funeral was attended by relatives, friends and Egyptian actors, while the casket was draped with the national flag.
- Following his demise, co-star in Funny Girl, Barbara Streisand said, “Omar was my first leading man in the movies. He was handsome, sophisticated and charming. He was a proud Egyptian and in some people’s eyes, the idea of casting him in ‘Funny Girl’ was considered controversial. Yet somehow, under the direction of William Wyler, the romantic chemistry between Nicky Arnstein and Fanny Brice transcended stereotypes and prejudice. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to work with Omar, and I’m profoundly sad to hear of his passing.”
Afro Tourism honors the memory of this great Egyptian icon and African legend and Arab superstar, Omar El-Sharif!
Niyi David explores the beautiful and enthralling continent of Africa with Afro Tourism, capturing colorful memories of places, cultures and events in words and images.
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