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Omar Sharif, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and ‘Dr. Zhivago’ Star, Dies at 83

Omar Sharif, the dashing, Egyptian-born actor who was one of the biggest movie stars in the world in the 1960s, with memorable roles in “Dr. Zhivago,” “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Funny Girl,” has died. He was 83.

Sharif suffered a heart attack on Friday afternoon in a hospital in Cairo, his agent said.

It was announced in May that he had Alzheimer’s disease.

With the global success of David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” starring Peter O’Toole, in 1962, Sharif became the first Arab actor to achieve worldwide fame, thanks to his charismatic presence in the epic film — and the Oscar nomination he drew because of it.

In its wake he very quickly became a busy Hollywood actor: Sharif made three films in 1964, including “Behold a Pale Horse” and “The Yellow Rolls Royce,” and three in 1965, including his first lead role in an English-language production, as the title character in Lean’s “Dr. Zhivago,” for which he won a Golden Globe.

Thanks to his gentle continental accent and dark but hard-to-place good looks, the actor was not ethnically typecast: In “Behold a Pale Horse” he played a Spaniard, in “Zhivago” a Russian, in “Genghis Khan” a Mongol, in “Funny Girl” a New York Jewish gambler and in “The Night of the Generals,” a German major during WWII.

Nevertheless, there was no little controversy about his role in “Funny Girl”: When 1967’s Six Day War between Israel and Arab countries including Egypt occurred, Columbia execs considered replacing Sharif; later, when a still depicting a love scene between the actor and Barbra Streisand was published, the Egyptian press began a movement to revoke Sharif’s citizenship.

Streisand remembered her costar in a statement: “Omar was my first leading man in the movies. He was handsome, sophisticated and charming. He was a proud Egyptian and in some people’s eyes, the idea of casting him in ‘Funny Girl’ was considered controversial. Yet somehow, under the direction of William Wyler, 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.”

Other significant late-’60s films for the actor included J. Lee Thompson Western “MacKenna’s Gold,” with Gregory Peck and Telly Savalas, and tragic European political love story “Mayerling,” in which Sharif was paired with Catherine Deneuve.

During the 1970s Sharif remained busy, but there were fewer notable projects. Standouts included Blake Edwards thriller “The Tamarind Seed,” with Julie Andrew, and Richard Lester’s thriller “Juggernaut.”

Since the mid-1980s Sharif returned sporadically to Egyptian cinema, where he got his start.

In 2003 Sharif won acclaim for his role in Francois Dupeyron’s “Monsieur Ibrahim” as a Turkish Muslim shop owner who becomes an avuncular figure for a Jewish boy in Paris. Although the role was perceived as representing something of a career resurgence for the actor, he had in fact been working regularly over the previous decades in film and TV and continued to do so after “Ibrahim.”

The same year he starred in the 23-episode French anthology TV series “Petits mythes urbains,” in which he played a mysterious cab driver; he also wrote for the series.

He had a substantial role in 2004’s “Hidalgo,” with Viggo Mortensen, and appeared in ABC’s 2006 “Ten Commandments” miniseries and NBC’s 2009 “The Last Templar” miniseries. On the bigscreen he was the narrator for Roland Emmerich’s “10,000 BC.” He also worked a great deal in film and TV projects not distributed in the U.S.

In 2013 he appeared as himself in Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s “A Castle in Italy.”

The same year he appeared in the French-Moroccan “Rock the Casbah.” Variety’s review said: “Omar Sharif — who’s appropriately acknowledged in the credits for his ‘exceptional participation’ — suggests a tone of magical realism during the pic’s opening minutes, as he playfully introduces himself to the audience as Moulay Hassan, a recently deceased industrialist.” The actor “makes such a winning impression as Hassan during this prologue, it’s actually disappointing that the role turns out to be little more than a sporadic cameo.”

The actor’s final film, the educational short “1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham,” will be released later this year.

Sharif was born Michel Dimitri Shalhoub in Alexandria to a Melkite Greek Catholic family from Lebanon, though he later converted to Islam. He and his wife had one son, who appeared in “Dr. Zhivago” as a young version of Sharif’s title character. The couple separated in 1966 — a year after the actor moved to Europe — and ultimately divorced; Sharif never remarried.

Sharif became interested in acting during his school years at Alexandria’s prestigious Victoria College and was given his first screen role in fellow alum Youssef Chahine’s “The Blazing Sun,” presented at Cannes in 1954. Soon thereafter he married his leading lady Faten Hamama, already a major star in Egyptian cinema (they divorced in 1974). The couple made a number of films together, including the provocative melodrama “Sleepless” (1957) and a version of “Anna Karenina” entitled “The River of Love” (1960). His roles in these films, including the five he made with leading helmer Salah Abouseif, exhibited a vibrant sensuality that complimented a marked emotional intelligence. By 1956 he was appearing in international productions, beginning with Richard Pottier’s “The Lebanese Mission,” though it wasn’t until 1962’s “Lawrence of Arabia” that he began to appear regularly in high-profile projects.

The actor was famously a world-class bridge player.

In November 2005, Sharif received UNESCO’s Sergei Eisenstein Medal in recognition of his significant contributions to world film and cultural diversity.

He is survived by a son, Tarek El-Sharif, and two grandsons, Omar Sharif Jr., an actor, and Karim.

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