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Omar Sharif (1932 - 2015)

omarsharifOmar Sharif, whose surname means "noble" in Arabic, was born on 10 April 1932, as Michel Demetri Chalhoub in Alexandria, Egypt, to a Melkite Greek Catholic family of Syrian-Lebanese descent.

His father, Joseph Chalhoub, was a wealthy merchant of exotic woods who settled in Egypt in the early 20th century, where Omar was born and raised. His mother was a noted society hostess with Egypt's King Farouk a regular visitor, before he was deposed in 1952.

In his youth, Sharif studied at Victoria College, Alexandria where he showed a talent for languages; he graduated from the University of Cairo with a degree in mathematics and physics. In 1955, Sharif converted to Islam and also married Egyptian actress Faten Hamama.

After obtaining a degree in mathematics and physics at the University of Cairo, he worked for a while in his father's precious wood business before studying acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

Acting career

In 1953, Sharif began his acting career in his native Egypt with a role in Sira` Fi al-Wadi. He quickly rose to stardom, appearing in Egyptian productions, including La anam in 1958, Sayedat el kasr in 1959 and the Anna Karenina adaptation Nahr el hub in 1961. He also starred with his wife, Egyptian actress Faten Hamama, in several movies as romantic leads.

Sharif's first English-language film was in the role of Sharif Ali in David Lean's historical epic Lawrence of Arabia in 1962. This performance earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture, as well as a shared Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year – Actor.

Casting Sharif in what is now considered one of the "most demanding supporting roles in Hollywood history," was both complex and risky, as he was virtually unknown at the time outside of Egypt. However, notes historian Steven Charles Caton, Lean insisted on using ethnic actors when possible to make the film authentic.

Sharif would later use his ambigious ethnicity in other films which enhanced his career: "I spoke French, Greek, Italian, Spanish and even Arabic," he said. "...with an accent that enabled me to play the role of a foreigner without anyone knowing exactly where I came from, something that has proved highly successful throughout my career."

Following this breakthrough role, Sharif played a variety of characters, including a Spanish priest in Behold a Pale Horse (1964), a Yugoslav wartime patriot in The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964), and the Mongolian conqueror in Genghis Khan (1965).

In the same year, Sharif reunited with Lean to play the title role in the epic love story, Doctor Zhivago (1965), an adaptation of Boris Pasternak's 1957 novel, which was banned in the USSR for 30 years.

Set during World War I and the Russian Revolution, Sharif plays the role of Yuri Zhivago, a poet and physician. Film historian Constantine Santas explains that Lean intended the film to be a poetic portrayal of the period, with large vistas of landscapes combined with a powerful score by Maurice Jarre. She notes that Sharif's role is seen as "passive," his eyes reflecting "reality" which then become "the mirror of reality we ourselves see."

In the commentary to the DVD, (2001 edition,) Sharif described Lean's style of directing as similar to a general commanding an army. For his performance, he won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama, while the film received ten Academy Award nominations, not including the Academy Award for Best Actor.

Over the next few years, Sharif co-starred in other films, including Behold a Pale Horse (1964). Director Fred Zinnemann said he chose Sharif partly on the suggestion of David Lean. "He said he was an absolutely marvelous actor,'If you possibly can take a look at him.'"

Film historian Richard Schickel wrote that Sharif gave a "truly wonderful performance," especially noteworthy because of his totally different role in Lawrence of Arabia: "It is hard to believe that the priest and the sheik are played by the same man."

Sharif also played a German military officer in The Night of the Generals (1967), as Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria in Mayerling (1968), and as Che Guevara in Che! (1969).

Sharif was also acclaimed for his portrayal of Nicky Arnstein in Funny Girl (1968). He portrayed the husband of Fanny Brice, played by Barbra Streisand in her first film role. His decision to work alongside Streisand angered Egypt's government due to her support for the state of Israel, however, and the country condemned the film. It was also "immediately banned" in numerous Arab nations.

Streisand herself jokingly responded, "You think Cairo was upset? You should've seen the letter I got from my Aunt Rose!"

Sharif and Streisand became romantically involved during the filming. He admitted later that he didn't find Streisand attractive at first, but her appeal soon overwhelmed him: "About a week from the moment I met her," he recalled, "I was madly in love with her. I thought she was the most gorgeous girl I'd ever seen in my life...I found her physically beautiful, and I started lusting after this woman."

Sharif reprised the role in the film's sequel, Funny Lady in 1975. Among his other films were the western Mackenna's Gold (1969), as an outlaw opposite Gregory Peck; the thriller Juggernaut (1974), which co-starred Richard Harris, and the romantic drama The Tamarind Seed (1974), co-starring Julie Andrews, directed by Blake Edwards.

Sharif also contributed comic cameo performances in Edwards' The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) and in the 1980 spy-film spoof Top Secret!

In 2003, he received acclaim for his leading role in Monsieur Ibrahim, the French-language film adaptation of the novel Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran, as a Muslim Turkish merchant who becomes a father figure for a Jewish boy. For his performance, Sharif received the César Award for Best Actor. Subsequent film roles include performances in Hidalgo (2004) and Rock the Casbah (2013).

Sharif once ranked among the world's top 50 contract bridge players, and played in an exhibition match before the Shah of Iran.

With Charles Goren, Sharif co-wrote a syndicated newspaper bridge column for the Chicago Tribune for several years, but mostly turned over the writing of the column to Tannah Hirsch. He was also both author and co-author of several books on bridge and licensed his name to a bridge video game; initially released in a MS-DOS version and Amiga version in 1992, Omar Sharif on Bridge is still sold in Windows and mobile platform versions.

Computer Gaming World in 1992 described the game as "easy to get into, challenging to play and well-designed", and named it one of the year's best strategy games. In 1993 the magazine stated that "it does not play a very good game of bridge", however, and criticized it for inadequate documentation and forcing players to conform to its bidding style. The magazine recommended two other bridge games instead.

In 2006, Sharif declared: "I've stopped altogether. I decided I didn't want to be a slave to any passion any more except for my work. I had too many passions, bridge, horses, gambling. I want to live a different kind of life, be with my family more because I didn't give them enough time."

Family and personal relationships

Sharif lived in his native Egypt from birth in 1932 until he moved to Europe in 1965. He recounted that, in 1932, his father "wasn't a wealthy man", but "earned quite a bit of money".

Before the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, King Farouk frequented Sharif's family's house, and became a friend and card-game partner of Sharif's mother. His mother was an elegant and charming hostess who was all too delighted with the association because it gave her the privilege of "consorting only with the elite" of Egyptian society. Sharif also recounted that his father's timber business was very successful during that time, in ways that Sharif describes as dishonest or immoral. By contrast, after 1952, Sharif stated that wealth changed hands in Egypt, under Nasser's nationalisation policies. His father's business "took a beating".

In 1954 acclaimed actress Faten Hamama accepted young Sharif as her co-star in the film Struggle in the Valley and shockingly accepted a scene involving a kiss with him, a first in her career. The two fell in love, and Sharif converted to Islam and married her. The couple had one son, Tarek El-Sharif, born 1957 in Egypt, who appeared in Doctor Zhivago as Yuri at the age of eight. They separated in 1966 and the marriage ended in 1974.

Sharif never remarried; he stated that since his divorce, he never fell in love with another woman. Hamama died in 2015, less than six months prior to Sharif's own death.

Travel restrictions in the form of "exit visas" were required of Egyptians, and his own travel to take part in international films was sometimes impeded, which he could not tolerate. The Nasser government's travel restrictions influenced Sharif's decision to remain in Europe between his film shoots, a decision that cost him his marriage to Faten Hamama, though they remained friends.

It was a major crossroad in Sharif's life and changed him from an established family man to a lifelong bachelor living in European hotels. When commenting about his fame and life in Hollywood, Sharif said, "It gave me glory, but it gave me loneliness also. And a lot of missing my own land, my own people and my own country."

When Sharif's affair with Barbra Streisand was made public in the Egyptian press, his Egyptian citizenship was almost withdrawn by the Egyptian Government due to Streisand's vocal support of Israel, with which Egypt was then in a state of war.

Sharif became friends with Peter O'Toole during the making of Lawrence of Arabia. They appeared in several other films together and remained close friends. He was also good friends with Egyptologist Zahi Hawass.

Actor and friend Tom Courtenay revealed in an interview for the 19 July 2008, edition of BBC Radio's Test Match Special that Sharif supported Hull City Association Football Club and in the 1970s would telephone their automated scoreline from his home in Paris for score updates. Sharif was given an honorary degree by the University of Hull in 2010 and used the occasion to meet Hull City football player Ken Wagstaff.

Sharif lived mostly in Cairo with his family. In addition to his son, he had two grandsons, Omar (born 1983 in Montreal) and Karim. Omar Sharif, Jr. is also an actor.

He was most recently known for playfully tussling on stage at the 83rd Academy Awards ceremony with actor Kirk Douglas, who was presenting the award for Best Supporting Actress that evening. Sharif Jr. also generated buzz for coming out as both gay and half-Jewish during the aftermath of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, saying he fears for his safety after Islamist parties' triumph in parliamentary elections.

In May 2015 it was reported that Sharif was suffering from Alzheimer's disease, and his son said he was becoming confused when remembering some of the biggest films of his career. Tarek El-Sharif, the only child of the star's marriage to ex-wife Faten Hamama, said that his father would mix up the names of his best-known films, Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia, often forgetting where they were filmed.

On 10 July 2015, less than six months after Hamama's death at the same age, Sharif died after a heart attack at a hospital in Helwan, Egypt.


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