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Doctor Zhivago and the Hollywood life

As promised, we continue the tribute for the legendary Omar Sharif in this second and final part. (Read the first part if you haven´t read it yet).

omar_sharif_part_2_picture_1We resume Sharif’s story starting with the year 1956, one year before the birth of his son Tarek. During this year, he starred in a French action/ thriller movie titled The Lebanese Mission by Richard Pottier, acting as himself under the name of Mokrir with well-known French actor Jean-Claude Pascal. The same year, director Youssef Chahine offered him the role of Ragab in his new film Dark Waters, again with his wife, Egyptian actress Faten Hamama. The couple continued acting in a consecutive number of films together such as Land of Peace (1957), No Tomorrow (1958), Lady of the Castle (1959) & The River of Love (1961).

One success followed another one, and Sharif’s filmography continued growing more and more, as he joined the cast of the French- backed film Goha, which won the jury prize in Cannes Film Festival in 1958 in a tie with Visages de Bronze film, giving him great recognition, but still not a worldwide one. He came back to his country where he continued acting with big names in the Egyptian cinema back, in a large number of films: The Fault of My Love (1958), Hidden Shore (1958), Struggle on the Nile (1959), Scandal in Zamalek (1959), Rendezvous with a Stranger (1959), For the Sake of a Woman (1959), Agony of Love (1960), I Love My Master (1961), Beginning & Ending (1961), There is a Man in our House (1961), The Agony of Love (1961) and My Only Love (1961). The list stops here as Sharif was discovered by the British filmmaker David Lean, who offered him the role of Sherif Ali in his 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia, which won 7 Academy Awards.

This film introduced the whole world to Omar Sharif and pushed his career forward with a Golden Globe Award as Best Supporting Actor and an Academy Award nomination for the Best Supporting Actor award. But how did Sharif discover such success? Here’s the story of the film that made a turning point in his career as told by Omar Sharif:

It was luck that made me put two photos in an envelope and send them to David Lean when he announced that he needed an Eastern actor to play a role in his new film. It was luck too that made David Lean send the producer of the film himself to Cairo to see me… I expressed my opinion of Lean’s films to him in fluent English…

Then he said: “They chose me for Lawrence of Arabia because I spoke English, had black hair, black eyes and a moustache. It was all luck. I was taken in a plane to the desert to meet David, and as we came in to land we see him sitting all by himself. We landed right next to him, but he didn’t move one step. When I got off the plane, he didn’t say ‘hello’. He simply walked round me to see my profile. Finally, he said ‘That’s very good, Omar. Let’s go to the make-up tent’. I tried on a moustache and it was decided I would grow one. I’ve shaved it off for a couple of films, but otherwise I’ve had it ever since”.omar_sharif_part_2_picture_4

Sharif became a major box-office figure and went on to act in consecutive big-budget films in the 1960s. After Lawrence of Arabia, he signed a contract with the studio and he got several subsequent appearances. David Lean advised Omar in choosing his roles carefully, as they were good friends.

Two years later, in 1964, Omar started filming the Academy Award nominated American film The Fall of the Romans with the iconic actress Sophia Loren. In the same year, he starred in American film Behold a Pale Horse, the Golden Globe Award-winning British film The Yellow Rolls-Royce with the legendary actress Ingrid Bergman and actor Alain Delon. The following year, he had roles in Genghis Khan, Marco the Magnificent, and The Mamelukes.

Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in the film Doctor ZhivagoIn the same year, he worked again with David Lean in Doctor Zhivago, arguably one of his most famous roles. The film won 5 Academy Awards and Omar played a Russian hero Yuri Zhivago (a.k.a. Dr Zhivago).This film also introduced Omar Sharif’s son Tarik through the small role of character Yuri.Doctor Zhivago was one of the first of Omar Sharif’s films I watched as a kid. Back then, I didn’t pay much attention to the story and sometimes I didn’t understand what was happening, but one thing really did capture my attention: Omar Sharif. I was fascinated by this handsome gentleman. He was really different from actors I had watched in other films and I was surprised an Arab actor could make it to international cinema. When I discovered my passion for cinema and filmmaking as a teenager, Omar Sharif came to be a huge inspiration. He believed in himself and worked hard for his huge accomplishments. He proved that no matter where you are, who you are, where you come from, and what you do, a chance will be given to you to reach your dreams, even the biggest ones that seem impossible.

His performance in Doctor Zhivago remains one of his best- remembered roles on screen because of his distinguished presence. Naturally, he won another Golden Globe Award as Best Motion Picture Actor in a Drama move and second place in the Golden Laurel Award. Omar Sharif claimed the original novel was one of his favourites. While reading the trivia of the film, they have mentioned that Omar had to “undergo the daily inconvenience of having his eyes taped back and his hair straightened to disguise his Egyptian looks. He also had his hairline shaved up about 2-3 inches and his skin waxed, a process which had to be repeated every 3 days” (Source: IMDB).

Regrettably, during the filming of this iconic film, Omar Sharif’s marriage to Faten Hamama collapsed. Eventually they divorced in 1974. Sharif explained the eventual failure of his marriage was due to his constant absences in Europe and the US. Travel restrictions were imposed by the government back then, so Sharif was not able to travel to star in international films. He finally took the decision to stay in Europe to continue star in films, costing him his marriage. However, he still remained friends with Faten Hamama. He was transformed from a family man into a bachelor living in European hotels by his decisions. He explained:

It gave me glory, but it gave me loneliness also. And a lot of missing my own land, my own people and my own country

omar_sharif_part_2_picture_2Following this 8th biggest grossing film of all time, he starred in the Primetime Emmy Award-winning film Danger Grows Wild a.k.a. Poppies are also Flowers in 1966. Then in 1967, he played Major Grau inThe Night of the Generals and Prince Rodrigo Fernandez in More than a Miracle. Whilst starring inFunny Girl in 1968 with award- winning actress Barbra Streisand, a publicity photo was released in the newspapers showing Sharif and Streisand kissing. All this occurred during high emotions caused by Six Day War between Egypt and Israel. The Egyptian press started a campaign to get Omar’s citizenship revoked, outraged because of the kiss and affair with someone of Jewish descent. Headlines read: “Omar kisses Barbra, Egypt angry”.  Sharif commented: “I loved Barbra for 3 months (during the shooting of Funny Girl). She was crazy.” He then added that he never truly loved anyone except Faten Hamama until Barbra Streisand.

In the same year, he starred in the Golden Globe Award-nominated film Mayerling with the famous French actress Catherine Deneuve. Funny Girl had a second part in 1975 titled Funny Lady which was nominated for 5 Academy Awards, but this time the love story was between Streisand and actor James Caan playing the role of Billy Rose. The characters of Barbra and Omar remained the same: Fanny Brice and Nick Arnstein. Omar Sharif’s films continued to grow more and more throughout the years and he starred in a large number of films and TV series until 2013 which can be viewed in his filmography. His last film 1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham is an animation short that will be released soon posthumously.

After years and years of success, growing old and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, his days became the same: sleeping until noon in a luxurious, discreet hotel in Paris, bathing and then walking for 45 minutes. Sharif said during an interview: “I come back here all by myself. I know no one. I have no friends in Paris. I want someone to take me to dinner, to take me out in the evenings.”, and while asking him how that can happen with such a great actor and a film legend, he replied: “Exactly! But I am not anymore. I don’t do anything, nor bad, not good. I just sit. I don’t read.”

His assistant for more than 40 years and “his back-up memory” Catherine Mareska explained Sharif’s solitude in the same interview as followed: “When people are superstars, they have 10,000 hangers-on. The moment the lights go out, they’re alone.” Sharif was one of the world’s top 50 bridge players and he founded the Omar Sharif Bridge Circus, but he stopped playing when he stopped being good enough, as he claimed. As for his son Tarek, he has a company that sells clothes in Egypt called “Sharif for Men.”In May 2015, Tarek said that his father was becoming confused when it comes to remembering some of the biggest films of his career and he would mix up the names of his most popular and well-known films such as Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia. On July 12, 2015, Sharif died aged 83 years after having a heart attack in a hospital in Cairo Egypt, less than six months after Faten Hamama.

This was a tragic ending in the life of a legend loved by many around the world and one of Hollywood’s most iconic actors. Besides everything, Omar Sharif was and always will be a legend for coming generations to meet and communicate with through his films. His work will last forever and his films will remain classics throughout time.

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