July 10, 2015


Egypt-born Sharif won two Golden Globe awards and an Oscar nomination for his role as Sherif Ali in David Lean’s 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia.

He won a further Golden Globe three years later for Doctor Zhivago.

Earlier this year, his agent confirmed he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

His agent Steve Kenis said: “He suffered a heart attack this afternoon in a hospital in Cairo.”

While he was under contract in the 1960s to Hollywood impresario Sam Spiegel, Sharif starred in some of the biggest films of the era; the aforementioned Lawrence, Dr. Zhivago, and alongside Barbara Streisand in Funny Girl. His career tapered off in the 1970s, and concurrently, his love of the gaming tables increased, which did not serve him well:

‘I don’t think I could live without a deck of cards in my hands,’ he declared, when asked on BBC radio’s Desert Island Discs in 1978 what luxury he would need most as a castaway. But the cards and the casinos were bankrupting him.

After losing £750,000 in one night at roulette, he was forced to sell his house in Paris, and announced: ‘I don’t own anything at all apart from a few clothes. I’m all alone and completely broke. Everything could have been so different if only I had found the right woman.’

His gambling addiction, he admitted, was madness, but he could not stop. He blamed boredom, and the loneliness of living out of a suitcase. His agent became used to Sharif’s desperate calls, demanding work so that he could pay urgent debts.

Often, the actor even had to reverse the call charges. But however many shoddy movies he made, he was always ‘one film behind my debts’.

He hated the roles. Though he could act in six languages — English, French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and Greek — he had an accent in all of them, and so was always cast as ‘a foreigner’: a Sultan, a Spanish priest, a Mexican cowboy, or Genghis Khan.

However, Sharif’s cinematic immortality is assured thanks to Spiegel and David Lean. Lean gave Sharif arguably the best entrance for a virtually unknown actor in the history of cinema in Lawrence:

Thanks to Lawrence’s blockbuster success, Spiegel convinced Sharif that the Oscar was his, but it wasn’t to be:

Spiegel was intent on making Peter O’Toole the focus of Lawrence of Arabia’s American promotion, and consequently he refused to fly Omar Sharif to the U.S. But O’Toole balked when he heard the plan. “He said, ‘Bollocks,’ and he meant it,” Sharif recalled. “‘Omar is going and we’re going together.’” It was fortunate that the Egyptian actor was included, since he was a great asset to the campaign, winning over reporters everywhere, whereas O’Toole behaved disgracefully, leading Spiegel to remark, “You make a star, you make a monster.” When the blond leading man wasn’t giving interviews while drunk, he was demanding outrageous sums for appearing on television.

Lawrence of Arabia received 10 Oscar nominations. A few hours before the ceremony, Sharif went to Spiegel’s suite in the Beverly Hills Hotel. “The only sure thing, that year, was that I was going to get the Academy Award,” Sharif said. “David told me, ‘Now, Omar, when they call your name, I want you to walk slowly up the aisle, like you did in the film—don’t rush, don’t run.’ … Sam said, ‘Baby, walk slowly.’” The actor was so prepared that as soon as Rita Moreno started reading the nominees, he got off his chair. “I was walking slowly, as David had told me. Then she said Ed Begley.”

Ouch. However, as with Peter O’Toole, the film made Sharif a much in-demand actor during the 1960s. And would lead to a star turn of his own. After O’Toole refused the role, Lean gave Sharif the chance to star in Doctor Zhivago. Zhivago was pummeled by New York critics during its initial release in 1965, likely because of its anti-Soviet theme, but much beloved by the general public. Its success staved off the collapse of MGM until the end of the 1960s.

It’s the one big film from the ‘60s I’ve never seen on the big screen and would love to. It’s a stunning film on Blu-Ray, and long overdue for a reassessment as one of the last great old-style epics from Hollywood before it too succumbed to a sort of Soviet-style cultural revolution in the late ‘60s and early 1970s.

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