Omar Sharif: Legendary Actor and one of the Best Bridge Players in the World bids farewell at 83
by Elizabeth Menon
Omar Sharif: Legendary Actor and one of the Best Bridge Players in the World bids farewell at 83 (10 April 1932-10 July 20
I am deeply saddened by Omar Sharif's passing and I write these words with tears in my eyes! He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in May 2015 and died on Friday afternoon after suffering a heart attack at a hospital in Cairo. He was my hero from the very first time I saw him in David Lean's 'Lawrence of Arabia', his first film in the English language! Who could forget his grand entrance, which has become legendary ever since, riding a camel in the blazing sun – he, Sharif Ali, gets off the camel and says to T E Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) who was drinking water from a well in the desert, “This is my well!” – film history was made then, and a following of adoring fans of all ages and gender around the globe! He had acted in around 15 Egyptian films before 'Lawrence of Arabia' happened and history was made!
He won two Golden Globe Awards and a Nomination for the Oscar for his role as Sharif Ali in 'Lawrence of Arabia', and he received a third Golden Globe for the best Actor in 'Doctor Zhivago' in 1965 and a Cesar Award in 2004! He was awarded UNESCO's most prestigious 'Sergei Eisenstein Medal' at a grand ceremony on 24 November 2005 at the Headquarters in Paris! This medal is named after the great Russian Film Director, Sergei Eisenstein who gave us Masterpieces like ' 'Potemkin, Alexander Nevsky, Ivan The Terrible, etc', and is awarded at the discretion of the UN Director General only to those exceptional talents in cinematography for their contribution to cultural diversity -- the Russian Film Authorities and the Russian Vivat Foundation for Music and the Theatre have stipulated a limitation on the number of medals at 25 over an indefinite period, adding to its exclusivity!
Omar Sharif was born Michel Dimitri Chalhoub on 10 April 1932 in Alexandria in Egypt to a Melkite Greek Catholic family from Lebanon. He studied Mathematics and Physics at Cairo University and went on to study Acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London (RADA). He converted to Islam taking the name Omar Sharif to marry his stunning leading lady in the Egyptian film 'The Blazing Sun'. He married Faten Hamama in 1955, who was considered the 'Queen of Egyptian Films' -- they got divorced in 1974, but she remained the 'Love of his life' and they have one son, Tarek El-Sharif. Hamama remarried, but sadly she died in January this year.
His performances in David Lean's 'Doctor Zhivago' with Julie Christie and in 'Funny Girl' with Barbara Streisand show his brilliance as an actor. The chemistry with Barbara Streisand in 'Funny Girl' was such that 'Funny Lady' was made few years later! 'MacKenna’s Gold' with Gregory Peck and Telly Savalas, 'Mayerling' with Catherine Deneuve, 'The Tamarind Seed,' with Julie Andrews, and Richard Lester’s thriller 'Juggernaut', 'Behold a Pale Horse', as Che Guevara in 'Che!', 'The Night of the Generals', and many more films and TV films followed. And all these films had one thing in common, the brilliant performance and the charismatic presence of the inimitable Omar Sharif --'Doctor Zhivago', 'Funny Girl', 'Lawrence of Arabia', 'Funny Lady', 'Mayerling' and 'The Tamarind Seed' topping my list!
Bridge, breeding racehorses and gambling were his passion and he ranked among the top 50 Bridge Players in the world! I remember him saying at an interview that on certain days, he looses an obscene amount of money that he could almost say that it was all his money flowing in the Casino! He has written books on the card game bridge and had a regular column, 'Bridge' by Omar Sharif' in the Times and I still have the paper cuttings. He wrote the foreword for the book, 'Play Better Bridge' by Rixi Markus, which I treasure! His racehorses won trophies many times and he wrote regular columns on horse racing.
Omar Sharif had a great following around the globe, as the charismatic actor and a brilliant bridge player. One could easily get lost in those penetrating brown eyes that showed such intense emotions, almost haunting -- and I can still that melancholic desperation in his eyes as he stands transfixed in the snow as the train is leaving the platform in the last scene in 'Doctor Zhivago'! He is survived by his son,Tarek El-Sharif and two grandsons, Omar Sharif Jr, an actor, and Karim. The restriction on his exit visa by the Egyptian authorities in the early years forced him to stay in Europe to pursue his film career, but lived in Cairo with his family during past few years.There will never be another dashing presence like him and I place him up there with the likes of Richard Burton. He is no more, but his films and his expertise on the game of bridge will be here for eternity! May his soul Rest in Peace!