Celebrating Omar Sharif

On his birthday, we find out there’s so much more to the screen legend than we thought we knew

Omar Sharif in C'era una volta directed by Francesco Rosi and co-starring Dolores del Río and Sophia Loren (1967) Photo: Supplied

By Salwa Adaris

Culture 10 April 2018

Omar Sharif would have turned 86 on April 10 this year. To celebrate his birthday, Google honoured his legacy by creating a Google Doodle of the actor on their homepage across 86 countries. Arguably, Sharif is one of the most, if not the most, successful export from the Arab world to the international stage.

Sharif rose to fame as an actor in Egypt through a series of successful films but it wasn’t until 1962 in his role as Sharif Ali in David Lean’s historical epic Lawrence of Arabia that propelled him to international fame.

The world fell in love with Shairf not only for his talents on the screen but also for his looks and charisma beyond the screen. From love affairs that caused international incidents, banned films, escapades with friends and bizarre talents here are eight facts you never knew of Omar Sharif.

Omar wasn’t always as Omar

Omar Sharif wasn’t born Omar Sharif. On April 10, 1932, in Alexandria, Egypt he was born Michel Dimitri Chalhoub to Lebanese parents. Joseph Chalhoub, his father was a precious woods merchant who moved the family to Cairo when Omar was four. Joseph Chalhoub made his money salvaging barbed wire left over from the second world war, a family business that made the Chalhoub family a decent amount of money. Claire Chalhoub, Sharif’s mother, was a socialite and known gambler – a talent that Omar obviously inherited. Popular among many social circles, Claire Chalhoub was a charismatic woman who even played cards with King Farouk of Egypt who thought of her as his good luck charm.

A Passion for Performance

When Sharif was 10 and attending the Victoria College boarding school, he displayed a talent for languages as well as acting. Throughout his life Sharif spoke Arabic, English, French, Italian, Greek and Spanish. It was also there that Sharif performed in his first production, The Invisible Duke. From then he knew that acting was something he wanted to pursue. However, his father didn’t entertain the idea, in fact he explicitly forbade it. After graduating with a degree in mathematics and physics from Cairo University, Sharif was forced to work in the family business. In an act of rebellion Sharif slashed his wrists to scare his father. The attempt at self-harm (or perhaps the elaborate performance?) worked. His father gave him more freedom and Sharif left for London to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).

Fame in Egypt

On his return to Egypt, Sharif quickly found stardom in films such as Devil of the Desert, Our Beautiful Days, Struggle in the Pier and many more. But it was his first film The Blazing Sun that really changed the course of his life. Sharif’s co-star in the film was Egyptian actress Faten Hamama. The now legendary actress had at the time refused to kiss Sharif for their scene until she met him properly. The fell in love and were married from 1955 to 1974 and had one son Tarek Sharif born in 1957.

Omar and Faten

Sharif converted to Islam in order to marry Faten, and changed his name to Omar Sharif. They made more than a dozen movies together and the public were consumed by them as a couple. Despite his love for Faten, Omar was known to have a few affairs. That along with the international fame that soon found him, were some of the contributing factors to their divorce after almost two decades together. Despite his playboy personal and his affairs, Sharif never remarried and stated that he never fell in love again after Faten. In fact, Omar and Faten died less than six months apart.

From Egypt to the World

Sharif became an international star when he was cast as Sherif Ali Ben El Kharish in Lawrence of Arabia. In 1963, Sharif became the first Arab to ever be nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Supporting Actor category for his role in Lawrence of Arabia. Despite not winning the Oscar that year, Sharif won a Golden Globe. Sharif and Peter O’Toole who played T.E. Lawrence, became good friends as a result of working together. They even ended up in jail the night of the movie’s Hollywood premiere where Sam Spiegel, the famed producer of the film had to get them out. Sharif also met Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser to show him that Arabs weren’t depicted in savage or demeaning stereotypes in the movie.

Iconic Omar Movies

Two films followed Sharif’s epic performance in Lawrence of Arabia. In 1965 Sharif starred in Doctor Zhivago, a film that he said almost gave him a nervous breakdown but it got him another Golden Globe. He then starred in Funny Girl in 1968 opposite Barbara Streisand, a film that cause an international incident. The Egyptian government condemned the film not only because Sharif was working alongside Streisand who was Jewish but that they were also romantically involved despite both being married at the time.  The film was banned in numerous Arab nations and both were reprimanded by their communities.

Omar and his Leading Women

Streisand wasn’t the only famous woman that Sharif worked with and dated. He starred alongside Ingrid Bergman in the film The Yellow Rolls-Royce in 1964 and the two were rumored to have had an affair. Sharif himself said that he fell in love with his co-star French actress Anouk Aimée when they were shooting the film The Appointment in 1969. He also had a romantic relationship with Catherine Deneuve when they worked together on the film Mayerling alongside Ava Garner. Other famous women he worked with were Sofia Loren in More than a Miracle in 1967 and Julie Andrews in The Tamarind Seed in 1974. In 1999, an Italian journalist claimed that Sharif was the father of her son born in 1969. Sharif admitted that he had a brief sexual encounter with the woman but didn’t consider the child to be his son.

Omar The Renascence Man

Sharif’s talents didn’t begin and end on the screen. He had a passion for horse racing, writing for a French horse racing magazine and even had horses that won many important races. He was also an incredibly talented bridge player and one of the world’s best known contract bridge players in the 60s. In fact, He wrote several books about bridge and co-wrote a column about bridge for The Chicago Tribune. Sharif also made money selling perfume in Europe and worked with a travel agency that booked bridge cruises. He was incredibly fond of traveling and was often globe-trotting from Spain where his mother lived, Montreal where his son lived and Atlanta where his sister lived.

Omar Back in Egypt

Sharif and his son Tarek were very close. It was Tarek who announced the news to the world that his father had been diagnosed with Alziehmers. Allegedly, signs of the disease made themselves apparent after Sharif was told that Faten has passed away. Sharif moved back to Egypt and passed away from a heart attack on July 10, 2015. Sharif is survived by his son and his two grandsons Karim Sharif and Omar Sharif who is also an actor, model, and gay activist.

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