Over the course of a career that spanned seven decades, Omar Sharif played every ethnic type imaginable: Spanish, Mongolian, Yugoslavian, Turkish, Russian, Jewish, Argentinian, Mexican, and -- most improbably -- a German serving as a Nazi officer (in 1967's Night of the Generals). That was the nature of his smoldering, swarthy good looks: Every race wanted to claim him as their own. The first Arab actor to achieve worldwide fame, Sharif nonetheless could never match the splash he made with two of his earliest English-language features, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.
Omar Sharif was born Michel Demetri Shalhoub on April 10, 1932, to a well-to-do Lebanese Christian family in Alexandria, Egypt. His father was a lumber merchant, while his mother was a socialite whose guests included King Farouk (and who sent her pudgy son to a British-style boarding school so he would lose weight eating the blander food.) He had a natural intelligence for numbers and language, and by the time he graduated from Cairo University with a degree in mathematics and physics, he could speak five languages (including Arabic, English, and French). After graduation, he worked alongside his father in the family lumber business, but his unused talents made him restless for bigger success.
Egypt was known as "the Hollywood of the Middle East" in the 1950s, producing more than 100 Arabic-language films a year. Hoping to break into the movies, Shalhoub chose the new moniker "Omar Sharif"; he reasoned Westerners would be familiar with Gen. Omar Bradley, and "Sharif" was similar to "sheriff." In 1954, director Youssef Chahine offered his friend a part in Shaytan Al-Sahra ("Devil of the Desert"), followed by a leading role in Siraa Fil-Wadi ("Struggle to the Valley") opposite Egyptian actress Faten Hamama, a pretty girl-next-door type who had been beloved by Cairo audiences ever since her debut as a child star. A romance soon blossomed between the co-stars; Sharif eventually converted to Islam in order to marry her, and Hamama allowed him to kiss her onscreen, which she had not agreed to do with any other co-star. The duo made seven more movies together, and had a son named Tarek in 1957.
Sharif's smoldering yet dignified box-office appeal spread from Egypt to European art-house cinemas, and eventually caught the attention of British director David Lean, who was casting Arabic actors for his biopic of T.E. Lawrence. Sharif's fluency in English put him ahead of the rest of the contenders, and he won the role of Sherif Ali Ibn El Karish in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Even though the 100-day shoot in the desert -- "without women," the actor later lamented -- tried the entire cast's patience, Sharif enjoyed working under Lean and earned the respect of the notoriously actor-hating director through his dedication. Similarly, Sharif became great friends with Peter O'Toole, declaring that he and his co-star were "like brothers" who, after shooting wrapped, vowed to work together again should any occasion arise.
Sharif's role in Lawrence of Arabia made him an international star and won him Golden Globes for Best Supporting Actor and Most Promising Newcomer, as well as an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Doctor Zhivago (1965), his next film for Lean (which included a cameo by his son Tarek as the younger version of his character), cemented his position as a superstar. Doctor Zhivago was an unprecedented smash, making more than 100 million dollars at the box office (over 750 million today, when adjusted for inflation), and earning ten Academy Award nominations and five wins.
These two blockbusters made Sharif a star, but he considered it a devil's bargain. Without an agent to act on his behalf, he signed a seven-year contract with Columbia that put his fee at what some sources say was as low as 15,000 dollars per film -- even for hits like Funny Girl (1968). Long sojourns in Europe and the U.S. took him away from Hamama and their son, and a combination of political difficulties reentering Egypt and temptations while away from home weakened their marriage. Acknowledging that Hamama was the love of his life, but paradoxically rationalizing that it would be better to leave her while she was relatively young and could remarry, the pair divorced in 1974.
As Sharif's career began a slow downward slide in the mid-'70s, with roles in stinkers like Oh, Heavenly Dog! (1980) and Inchon (1981), his personal life also became cluttered with flings, including one with Italian journalist Paola De Luca that led to a son named Ruben. Rather than concentrate on acting, Sharif instead devoted more and more time to his passion for the card game bridge, writing several books and a syndicated newspaper column about the strategy of the game, as well as lending his name to video-game simulations. He eventually became one of the highest-ranked bridge players in the world, and his love for the game was so great that sometimes he would refuse film roles because the shooting schedule conflicted with bridge tournaments.
While Sharif's last decades were mostly devoted to a laissez-faire lifestyle as an intercontinental playboy, living in hotels and frequenting casinos, he did make some onscreen appearances. He played a supporting role in 2004's Hidalgo (in which he demanded -- and received -- rewrites for dialogue he found insulting toward Muslims) and narrated the epic-fantasy film 10,000 B.C. (2008). But his final cinematic triumph was in Monsieur Ibrahim (2003), a heartfelt coming-of-age drama set in 1950s Paris about the unlikely friendship between a kindly Muslim shopkeeper and a Jewish teen. The movie earned praise from critics and won Sharif a Best Actor Award at the Venice Film Festival and a Best Actor César (the French equivalent of the Oscars).
His last years were, regrettably, marred by colorful public incidents, including headbutting a policeman in a casino in suburban Paris and punching a parking-lot attendant in Beverly Hills. But this churlish behavior might have been a harbinger of Alzheimer's disease, which blackened his final days. After completing a swan-song cameo in The Secret Scripture with his grandson Omar Sharif Jr., and only six months following the death of Faten Hamama, the woman he still regarded as "the love of my life," Sharif succumbed to a fatal heart attack in Cairo on July 10, 2015.