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Star of Doctor Zhivago Omar Sharif dies aged 83

By Robert Dex

Published 11/07/2015

Omar Sharif in his greatest movie hit, Dr Zhivago, with co-star Julie Christie
Omar Sharif in his greatest movie hit, Dr Zhivago, with co-star Julie Christie
Omar Sharif with his only wife, Faten Hamama, on their wedding day
Omar Sharif meeting Princess Margaret at the royal premiere of Funny Girl with co-star Barbra Streisand

Omar Sharif, the Egyptian-born film star who has died aged 83, was one of the cinema's gentlest and most civilised exponents of romantic heroism.

With his dark flashing eyes, black curly hair, prominent moustache, brigand-like looks, refined features and oily, pained, little smile, he set millions of female hearts a-flutter in a Hollywood tradition that went back to Rudolph Valentino.

Although his career was often blighted by miscasting and the quality of scripts, he was a box office attraction from the word go as a friendly sheikh gazing across the shimmering desert with Peter O'Toole in Lawrence Of Arabia - his first English-speaking role after years of stardom in the Middle East.

Well-bred, well-mannered and not without a streak of nobility, Sharif was among the least demanding of actors. He had a most endearing way of looking on the verge of tears when unable to gain access to a loved one, and starred opposite some of the most charming actresses of his generation, from Sophia Loren, Ingrid Bergman and Anouk Aimee to Catherine Deneuve, Julie Christie and Barbra Streisand.

On the whole, though, nothing he subsequently did on screen could compare to that sparklingly authentic first appearance, on a camel as an Arab chief in David Lean's Lawrence Of Arabia.

It brought him a nomination for an Academy Award and leading parts in many other epics as assorted princes and warriors, though he seemed happiest in the company of beautiful women.

Sharif was a civilised man with cosmopolitan tastes and his first love was often said to be bridge. He found it hard, given the quality of most of his films, to take them as seriously as the pleasures of contract bridge.

Off the screen he also famously conducted a series of well-chronicled courtships of leading ladies, former leading ladies or leading ladies from other films, notably Miss Streisand, Catherine Deneuve and Dyan Cannon.

"I definitely want to do mainly theatre now," he would say when one of his blockbusters was released to little critical acclaim, "or two weeks in a film for a remarkable amount of money." In 1983 he starred in a West End revival of The Sleeping Prince. He was a syndicated columnist on bridge for various papers and periodicals, and apart from writing a book on bridge, also made an instructional video.

The son of a wealthy timber merchant of Lebanese and Syrian descent, Michael Demitri Chaloub was born in Alexandria on April 10, 1932, and had an essentially European education at Victoria College, Cairo, where he read mathematics and physics.

After five years as a salesman in the family's lumber business he was offered a leading role in The Blazing Sun (1954).

Its star, Faten Hamama, was already one of Arabic cinema's favourite actresses.

Their partnership flourished both on an off screen, and they were married in 1955.

In the next five years Sharif, after adopting the Muslim religion and changing his name to Omar El-Sharif, made 23 Arabic-speaking films.

He also starred in two French productions.

Meanwhile, dropping the El from his name, he triumphed in his first international film as the fierce but faithful tribesman ally of O'Toole's Lawrence Of Arabia. Leading roles in Lean's epic about the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, Doctor Zhivago, and William Wyler's musical comedy, Funny Girl, followed.

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