Omar Sharif, whose surname means “noble” or “nobleman” in Arabic, was born on 10 April 1932, as Michel Demitri Chalhoub in Alexandria, Egypt, to a Melkite Greek Catholic family of Lebanese descent. His father, Joseph Chalhoub, a precious woods merchant originally from Zahle, moved to Egypt in the early 20th century, particularly Alexandria, where Omar Sharif was born, his family moved to Cairo when he was four. His mother, Claire Saada, was a noted society hostess, and Egypt’s King Farouk was a regular visitor until he was deposed in 1952. In his youth, Sharif studied at Victoria College, Alexandria, where he showed a talent for languages. He later graduated from Cairo University with a degree in mathematics and physics. He then worked for a while in his father’s precious wood business before studying acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. In 1955, Sharif changed his name and converted to Islam in order to marry fellow Egyptian actress Faten Hamama. In 1954, Sharif began his acting career in his native Egypt with a role in Shaytan Al-Sahra (“Devil of the Desert”). In the same year he appeared in Sira` Fi al-Wadi (“Struggle in the Valley”). He quickly rose to stardom, appearing in Egyptian productions, including La Anam (“Sleepless”) in 1958, Sayyidat al-Qasr (“Lady of the Palace”) in 1959 and the Anna Karenina adaptation Nahr el hub (“The River of Love”) in 1961. He also starred with his wife, Egyptian actress Faten Hamama, in several movies as romantic leads.
Sharif’s first English-language role was that 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 ambiguous 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.” 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 Yugoslav wartime patriot in The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964), the Mongolian conqueror in Genghis Khan (1965), a German military officer in The Night of the Generals (1967), Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria in Mayerling (1968) and Che Guevara in Che! (1969).
In 1965, Sharif reunited with Lean in order 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 played the role of Yuri Zhivago, a poet and physician. Film historian Constantine Santas explained 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. He notes that Sharif’s role is “passive”, his eyes reflecting “reality” which then become “the mirror of reality we ourselves see”. In a commentary on 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, but Sharif was not nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor.
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 because she was Jewish, 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 did not 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 Sharif’s other films were the western Mackenna’s Gold (1969), playing 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, and directed by Blake Edwards. Sharif also contributed comic cameo performances in Edwards’ The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) and in the 1984 spy-film spoof Top Secret! In 2003, he received acclaim for his leading role in Monsieur Ibrahim, a 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 this performance, Sharif received the César Award for Best Actor. Sharif’s later film roles included performances in Hidalgo (2004) and Rock the Casbah (2013).
Sharif had a triple heart bypass in 1992 and suffered a mild heart attack in 1994. Until his bypass, Sharif smoked 100 cigarettes a day. He quit smoking after the operation. In May 2015 it was reported that Sharif was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. His son Tarek Sharif said that his father was becoming confused when remembering some of the biggest films of his career; he 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 suffering a heart attack at a hospital in Cairo, Egypt. He was 83. On 12 July 2015, Sharif’s funeral was held at the Grand Mosque of Mushir Tantawi in eastern Cairo. The funeral was attended by a group of Sharif’s relatives, friends and Egyptian actors, his casket draped in the Egyptian flag and a black shroud. His coffin was later taken to the El-Sayeda Nafisa cemetery in southern Cairo, where he was buried.
- April, 10, 1932
- Alexandria, Al Iskandariyah
- July, 10, 2015
- Cairo, Al Qahirah
Cause of Death
- heart attack
- El Sayeda Nafisa Cemetery
- Cairo, Al Qahirah