OMAR Sharif, who made one of the greatest entrances in Hollywood history, has made his exit in his native Egypt, aged 83.
The actor, who starred in hit films including Doctor Zhivago and Funny Girl, was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
His agent, Steve Kenis, said yesterday: “He suffered a heart attack this afternoon in a hospital in Cairo.”
He was an established star in Egyptian cinema when David Lean cast him in the 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia.
Cinema audiences watched entranced as he was first seen in the distance as a speck in the sweltering desert, before emerging as a black-clad figure on a camel who challenged the film’s hero, played by Peter O’Toole.
His performance made him an international star.
Other big roles followed with Sharif starring opposite Julie Christie and Tom Courtenay in Doctor Zhivago, where he played the title character in the romantic epic set in revolutionary Russia.
His Funny Girl appearance opposite Barbra Streisand, who is Jewish, was condemned in the Middle East but is now regarded as one of his finest roles.
When you’re not young, it’s good to live in a hotelOmar Sharif
He went on to star in dozens of films but his career never quite lived up to its early promise and his later fame rested on his ability with a pack of cards – he was a regular in casinos and was one of the world’s best bridge players.
But gambling took its toll on his career and, speaking in 2004, Sharif said he stopped making films when his own grandchildren started making fun of the low-rent movies he was appearing in. He said: “I stopped making movies because, for the last 25 years, I’ve been making a lot of rubbish because I was in debt all the time.”
Sharif was Egypt’s biggest box office star when Lean cast him in Lawrence of Arabia, but he was a virtual unknown elsewhere. He was not even the director’s first choice to play Sherif Ali, the tribal leader with whom the enigmatic TE Lawrence teams up to help lead an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire.
Lean had hired another actor but dropped him because his eyes were not the right colour. The film’s producer went to Cairo to search for a replacement and found Sharif, already a heart-throb in his own country, playing brooding romantic heroes.
After passing a screen test that proved he was fluent in English, he got the job. Away from movies, Sharif was a world-class bridge player who for many years wrote a newspaper column on the game.
Sharif spent much of his later years in Cairo and at the Royal Moncean Hotel in Paris. “When you live alone and you’re not young, it’s good to live in a hotel,” he said in 2005.
“If you feel lonely, you can go down to the bar. I know all the people who work here and who come here regularly. The room is done for you, and you don’t have to worry about anything.
“If you feel anything, health-wise, you can call the concierge and tell them to bring all the ambulances in Paris.”