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Saturday 10 December 2016

Curtain draws on the glittering life of icon from cinema's golden years

obituary

Omar Sharif, the Egyptian-born film star, who has died aged 83, was one of the cinema's gentlest and most civilised exponents of romantic heroism.

With his dark flashing eyes, black curly hair, prominent moustache, brigand-like looks, refined features and oily, pained, little smile, he set millions of female hearts a-flutter in a Hollywood tradition that went back to Rudolph Valentino.

Although his career was often blighted by miscasting and the quality of scripts, he was a box-office attraction from the word go as a friendly sheikh gazing across the shimmering desert with Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia - his first English-speaking role after years of stardom in the Middle East.

Well-bred, well-mannered and not without a streak of nobility, Sharif was among the least demanding of actors.

He starred opposite some of the most charming actresses of his generation, from Sophia Loren, Ingrid Bergman and Anouk Aimée to Catherine Deneuve, Julie Christie and Barbra Streisand.

On the whole, though, nothing he subsequently did on screen could compare to that sparklingly authentic first appearance, on a camel as an Arab chief in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia.

It brought him a nomination for an Academy award, and leading parts in many other epics as assorted princes and warriors, though artistically speaking he seemed happiest in the company of, or pining for, beautiful women.

Sharif was a civilised man with cosmopolitan tastes and his first love was often said to be bridge.

He found it hard, given the quality of most of his films, to take them as seriously as the pleasures of contract bridge; and by the 1970s he had begun to win as much acclaim and admiration for his poise and prowess at the bridge table as for his conquests on the screen.

Courtships

Off it he also famously conducted a series of well-chronicled courtships of leading ladies, former leading ladies or leading ladies from other films, notably Miss Streisand, Catherine Deneuve, and Dyan Cannon.

The son of a wealthy timber merchant of Lebanese and Syrian descent, Michael Demitri Chaloub was born in Alexandria on April 10 1932 and had an essentially European education at Victoria College, Cairo, where he read Mathematics and Physics.

After five years as a salesman in the family's lumber import business, he was offered by an old family friend (Youssef Shahin), one of Egypt's better film directors, a leading role in The Blazing Sun (1954).

Its star, Faten Hamama, was already one of Arabic cinema's favourite actresses.

Their partnership flourished both on an off screen, and they were married in 1955. In the next five years Sharif, after adopting the Muslim religion and changing his name to Omar El-Sharif, made 23 Arabic-speaking films, notably Beginning and End (196O).

By the early 70s his charm, which might have flourished for longer had it been allowed to develop in small-scale drama, had begun to fade.

In 2006 Omar Sharif announced that he had given up bridge.

His marriage to Faten Hamama was dissolved. They had a son, Tarek, who survives.

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