CAIRO » In “Lawrence of Arabia,” Omar Sharif first emerges as speck in distance in the shimmering desert sand. He draws closer, a black-robed figure on a trotting camel, until he finally dismounts, pulling aside his scarf to reveal his dark eyes and a disarming smile framed by his thin mustache.
The Egyptian-born actor’s Hollywood debut immediately enshrined him as a smoldering leading man of the 1960s, transcending nationality.
Sharif died of a heart attack in a Cairo hospital on Friday at the age of 83, his London-based agent Steve Kenis and close friends said.
When director David Lean cast him in 1962’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” Sharif was already the biggest heartthrob in his homeland, where he played brooding, romantic heroes in multiple films in the 1950s — and was married to Egyptian cinema’s reigning screen beauty. But he was a virtual unknown elsewhere.
He wasn’t Lean’s first choice to play Sherif Ali, the tribal leader with whom Peter O’Toole’s 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. 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. His international stardom was cemented three years later by his starring turn in another sweeping historical epic by Lean, “Doctor Zhivago.”
Though he had over 100 films to his credit, “Doctor Zhivago” was considered his Hollywood classic. The Russian doctor-poet Zhivago makes his way through the upheaval of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, guided by his devotion to his art and to his doomed love for Lara, played by Julie Christie.
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 luscious Oscar-winning score.
Although Sharif never achieved that level of success again, he remained a sought-after actor for many years, able to play 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.
“He was handsome, sophisticated and charming. He was a proud Egyptian and in some people’s eyes,” Streisand said in a statement. She said the Funny Girl casting was controversial but “the romantic chemistry between Nicky Arnstein and Fanny Brice transcended stereotypes and prejudice.”
“I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to work with Omar, and I’m profoundly sad to hear of his passing,” she said.
In his middle years Sharif began appearing in such films as “The Pink Panther Strikes Again,” ”Oh Heavenly Dog!,” and others he dismissed as “rubbish.”
The drought lasted so long that finally, beginning in the late 1990s, Sharif began declining all film offers.
“I lost my self-respect and dignity,” he told a reporter in 2004. “Even my grandchildren were making fun of me. ‘Grandpa, that was really bad. And this one? It’s worse.'”
He had something of a revival. In 2003, he portrayed a Muslim shopkeeper in Paris who adopts a Jewish boy in the French film “Monsieur Ibrahim,” winning him a Cesar, the French equivalent of the Oscar.
But for most of the 1990s and 2000s, he was better known for the lifestyle of an international playboy, living in hotels and gambling prodigiously, reportedly once winning a million dollars at an Italian casino. He was a world-class bridge player who for many years wrote a newspaper column on the game.
Yousra, Egypt’s biggest actress for much of the past 30 years and a close friend of Sharif, compared him to a “clean-cut” diamond.
“He was a phenomena; a one of a kind. Everyone had a dream to be like Omar Sharif. No one will be like him,” she told the AP on Friday.
Born Michael Shalhoub on April 10, 1932 in Egypt’s Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria, Sharif was the son of Christian Syrian-Lebanese parents.
After working three years at his father’s lumber company, he fulfilled his longtime ambition to become a movie actor. Taking the name Omar el-Sharif, he appeared in nearly two dozen Egyptian films. In the 1954 “Struggle in the Valley,” he plays a young man caught up in a power struggle in a Nile village and in love with the daughter of his rival, played by Egypt’s top movie queen, Faten Hamama.
A year later, Sharif converted to Islam and married Hamama. They were the glamor couple of Egyptian cinema, going on to star together in multiple films. Their longing gaze, locked together about to kiss, is an iconic image of Egyptian movie posters.
They had a son, Tarek, and divorced in 1974.
Sharif never remarried, often saying Hamama was his one love but he could never settle down. He was romantically linked with a number of Hollywood co-stars over the years. In 2004, he acknowledged that he also had another son, who was born after a one-night stand with an interviewer.
He was also notorious for a violent temper. Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said wrote that Sharif was the school bully at Alexandria’s Victoria College which they both attended as young boys. In 2003 after losing at a Paris casino, Sharif argued with a croupier and head-butted a policeman. That got him a $1,700 fine and a one-year suspended sentence. In 2007, he punched a Beverly Hills parking valet who refused to accept payment in Euros. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor battery charge and had to take an anger management course.
Sharif spent much of his later years in at a hotel in Cairo and at the Royal Moncean Hotel in Paris.
“When you live alone and you’re not young, it’s good to live in a hotel,” he told a reporter in 2005. “If you feel lonely, you can go down to the bar.” He quit gambling, saying he needed to ensure he had enough money.
Sharif’s son Tarek revealed in May that his father had Alzheimer’s. In fact, he’d been suffering from the disease for three years, said Zahi Hawass, the former chief of Egypt’s antiquities administration who was a close friend of Sharif.
Speaking to the AP on Friday, Hawass said that when he told him Hamama died in January, Sharif asked him, “Faten who?” Hawass said. Sharif was moved to a Cairo hospital a month ago and had grown increasingly depressed, refusing food or water the past several days.
In a 2003 interview with the AP, Sharif struck a wistful note about how “Lawrence of Arabia” vaulted him to fame.
It will always be a great film, he said. But “it separated me from my wife, from my family … That was it, the end of our wedding.”
“I might have been happier having stayed an Egyptian film star.”
AP correspondent Greg Katz in London, National Writer Hillel Italie in New York and Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen contributed to this report. Biographical material in this story was written by The Associated Press’ late Hollywood correspondent, Bob Thomas.