CAIRO – In “Lawrence of Arabia,” Omar Sharif first emerges as a speck in the distance in the shimmering desert sand. He draws closer, a black-robed figure on a trotting camel, until he finally dismounts, pulling aside his scarf to reveal his dark eyes and a disarming smile framed by his thin mustache.
The Egyptian-born actor’s Hollywood debut immediately enshrined him as a smoldering leading man of the 1960s, transcending nationality.
Sharif died of a heart attack in a Cairo hospital on Friday at age 83, his London-based agent, Steve Kenis, and close friends said.
When director David Lean cast him in the 1962 film “Lawrence of Arabia,” Sharif was already the biggest heartthrob in his homeland, where he played brooding, romantic heroes in multiple films in the 1950s – and was married to Egyptian cinema’s reigning screen beauty. But he was a virtual unknown elsewhere.
He wasn’t Lean’s first choice to play Sherif Ali, the tribal leader with whom Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence teams up to help lead the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Lean had hired another actor but dropped him because his eyes weren’t the right color. The film’s producer, Sam Spiegel, went to Cairo to search for a replacement and found Sharif. After proving he was fluent in English, he got the job.
The film brought him a supporting-actor Oscar nomination. His international stardom was cemented three years later by his starring turn in another sweeping historical epic by Lean, “Doctor Zhivago.”
Although he had over 100 films to his credit, “Doctor Zhivago” was considered his Hollywood classic. The Russian doctor-poet Zhivago makes his way through the upheaval of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, guided by his devotion to his art and to his doomed love for Lara, played by Julie Christie.
Still, Sharif never thought it was as good as it could have been.
“It’s sentimental. Too much of that music,” he once said, referring to Maurice Jarre’s luscious Oscar-winning score.
Although Sharif never achieved that level of success again, he remained a sought-after actor for many years, playing characters of many different nationalities.
He was Argentine-born revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara in “Che!,” Italian Marco Polo in “Marco the Magnificent” and Mongol leader Genghis Khan in “Genghis Khan.” He was a German officer in “The Night of the Generals,” an Austrian prince in “Mayerling” and a Mexican outlaw in “Mackenna’s Gold.”
He was also the Jewish gambler Nick Arnstein opposite Barbra Streisand’s Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl.” The 1968 film was banned in his native Egypt because he was cast as a Jew.
“He was handsome, sophisticated and charming,” Streisand said in a statement. She said that the “Funny Girl” casting was controversial but that “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,” she said.
In his middle years, Sharif appeared in such films as “The Pink Panther Strikes Again,” “Oh Heavenly Dog!,” and others he dismissed as “rubbish.”
The drought lasted so long that finally, beginning in the late 1990s, Sharif began declining all film offers.
“I lost my self-respect and dignity,” he told a reporter in 2004. “Even my grandchildren were making fun of me. ‘Grandpa, that was really bad. And this one? It’s worse.’ ”
He had something of a revival. In 2003, he portrayed a Muslim shopkeeper in Paris who adopts a Jewish boy in the French film “Monsieur Ibrahim,” winning him a César, the French equivalent of the Oscar.
But for most of the 1990s and 2000s, he was better-known for the lifestyle of an international playboy, living in hotels and gambling prodigiously. He was a world-class bridge player who for many years wrote a newspaper column on the game.
Born Michael Shalhoub on April 10, 1932, in Egypt’s Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria, Sharif was the son of Christian Syrian-Lebanese parents.
After working three years at his father’s lumber company, he fulfilled his longtime ambition to become a movie actor. Taking the name Omar el-Sharif, he appeared in nearly two dozen Egyptian films. In the 1954 “Struggle in the Valley,” he played a young man caught up in a power struggle in a Nile village and in love with the daughter of his rival, played by Egypt’s top movie queen, Faten Hamama.
A year later, Sharif converted to Islam and married Hamama. They were the glamour couple of Egyptian cinema, going on to star together in multiple films.
They had a son, Tarek, and divorced in 1974. Sharif never remarried, often saying that Hamama was his one love but that he could never settle down. He was romantically linked with a number of Hollywood co-stars over the years.
In a 2003 interview with AP, Sharif struck a wistful note about how “Lawrence of Arabia” vaulted him to fame.
It will always be a great film, he said. But “it separated me from my wife, from my family. … That was it, the end of our wedding.”
“I might have been happier having stayed an Egyptian film star.”