WE WILL MISS YOU, DEAR OMAR SHARIF
Born in Egypt in 1932, the son of a Lebanese wood merchant, Sharif got a degree in maths and physics at Cairo university before heading for Rada in London to study acting. His first significant film role came back in Egypt, when he was cast in Struggle in the Valley, directed by Youssef Chahine. Sharif played an engineer conducting an illicit love affair with his business rivals’ daughter; she was played by Faten Hamama, and the pair were married shortly after.
Sharif made a string of films opposite Hamama, a big star in the thriving Egyptian film industry. This one is The River of Love, a contemporised adaptation of Anna Karenina,which was released in 1960.
Sharif’s big step up internationally came after he was cast in David Lean’s epic biography of TE Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia. He was given the role of Sherif Ali, an amalgamation of a number of real-life Arab leaders Lawrence had dealings with. Though Sharif in retrospect gave the cast some ethnic credibility, he only got the role after a number of westerners, including Horst Buchholz and Alain Delon, turned it down. Sharif went on to receive a best supporting actor Oscar nomination (losing out to Ed Begley in Sweet Bird of Youth) but did nab a most promising newcomer Golden Globe.
With the entree that provided, Sharif quickly became a Hollywood standby, his leonine good looks and dark-browed exoticism standing him in good stead. It allowed him to take a lot of general-purpose foreigner roles, like the Yugoslav partisan smuggled across the border by Ingrid Bergman in The Yellow Rolls Royce.
Lean decided to follow up Lawrence of Arabia with an adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s 1957 novel Doctor Zhivago, and Sharif signed on, initially aiming to play Pasha (the role eventually taken by Tom Courtenay). However, Lean asked him to play the title role, and the huge popularity of the film secured Sharif’s place in the cinema firmament.
Funny Girl, in which Sharif warbled opposite Barbara Streisand, was the third of his three great Hollywood successes. Funny Girl was Streisand’s first film role, reprising a show she had done on Broadway, and won a best actress Oscar (jointly with Katharine Hepburn). Sharif played the suave but shifty husband, Nicky.
Thereafter, Sharif found himself more often than not marooned in films of questionable achievement. One of the most notorious was Che, a biopic of the celebrated revolutionary, which has gone down in history as one of the all time worst. It further cemented its place after being blisteringly parodied by Woody Allen’s Bananas.
Sharif played another of his all-purpose foreigners in The Tamarind Seed; he was a Russian spy who romances Home Office clerk Julie Andrews in a cold war romantic farce from Blake Edwards.
Among his many subsequent roles, Sharif popped up in Top Secret!, the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker follwup to Airplane. Sharif played a trenchcoated secret agent; suffice to say, it wasn’t a massive success.
Most of his later films disappeared leaving little trace, but The 13th Warrior, a very strange Arab/Viking hybrid adapted from a Michael Crichton novel. Sharif played Antonio Banderas’ crusty pal Melchisidek, in a yarn that sees Banderas’ Ahmad pitted against an ancient Norse evil spirit. It’s actually a pretty good film, but the budget ballooned so high that it’s gone down in history as one of Hollywood’s biggest financial catastrophes.
Sharif had a late flourish in 2003 with Monsieur Ibrahim, a low-key little French film about a Jewish kid in 1960s Paris who bonds with a Turkish shopkeeper. It won Sharif best actor at the Césars, and provided a fitting testament to his long career.
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