Sharif was Egypt’s biggest box-office star when David Lean cast him in 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia, but he was a virtual unknown elsewhere. He wasn’t even the director’s first choice to play Sherif Ali, the tribal leader with whom the enigmatic 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, already a heartthrob in his own country, playing brooding romantic heroes. After passing a screen test that proved he was fluent in English, he got the job.
The film brought him a supporting-actor Oscar nomination and international stardom.
Three years later, Sharif demonstrated his versatility, playing the leading role of a doctor-poet who endures decades of Russian history, including World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, surviving on his art and his eternal love of Lara, in Dr Zhivago.
Lean’s adaptation of the Boris Pasternak novel suffered sparse attendance and reviews were negative in its first US release. After MGM removed it from theatres and Lean re-edited it, the film was re-released and became a box office hit. 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 Oscar-winning score.
Although Sharif never achieved that level of success again, he remained a sought-after actor for many years, partly because of his proficiency at playing 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.
Gambling took its toll on his career and, speaking in 2004, Sharif said he stopped making films when his own grandchildren started making fun of the low-rent movies he was appearing in.
Born Michael Shalhoub in Egypt’s Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria, Sharif was the son of Christian Syrian-Lebanese parents.
He married Egypt’s then-reining movie queen and screen beauty, Faten Hamama, in 1955. He converted to Islam to marry her. They divorced in 1974, and Sharif never remarried.
Sharif’s son Tarek revealed in May his father had Alzheimer’s. Zaki, the Egyptian Theatrical Arts Guild president said yesterday that Sharif stopped eating and drinking in the last three days.
Away from the movies, Sharif was a world-class bridge player who for many years wrote a newspaper column on bridge, which was published in the Irish Examiner. He quit the game in later years, however, when he gave up gambling.