When Omar Sharif, as Sherif Ali, rode on a camel on to the shimmering desert in Lawrence of Arabia, the world discovered a new movie star. Cast opposite Peter O’Toole, who played the eponymous T.E. Lawrence, Sharif quickly became a heartthrob among female fans and continued to be one for years afterwards.
Sharif was already a big name in Egypt’s movie scene, having attained fame from his very first film Siraa Fil-wadi (The Burning Sun) in 1954. He had trained in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), but it was his swarthy good looks that captivated audiences.
Legend has it that India’s own Dilip Kumar was offered the Lawrence of Arabia role by David Lean but he turned it down and Sharif was selected. Sharif later confessed he did not understand why Lawrence was such a success, since it only had shots of people on camels walking from one side to the other.
Lean cast him next in Dr. Zhivago as a Russian doctor caught up in the revolution and this further cemented his position among international actors. Many other films, including Funny Girl and Tamarind Seed followed as well as biopics of Che Geuvara and Genghis Khan.
In India, his most popular film remained Mackenna’s Gold, with Gregory Peck, Telly Savalas and Edward G. Robinson, an average western yarn about the quest for treasure guarded by Apache spirits in the mountains. Sharif played a Mexican outlaw. The film is not counted among his more famous ones but is well remembered in India to this day, as is the movie’s song ‘Old Turkey Buzzard’.
Towards the end of his life he almost totally gave up on cinema, since he said he was getting lousy roles, but concentrated on bridge, playing in tournaments all over the world. He was among the top ranking players globally. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and his son was reported as saying he had begun to forget details of his work.