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‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ ‘Dr. Zhivago’ icon Sharif dies at 83

Epics aside, versatility was hallmark of Egyptian star

Actor Omar Sharif attends the photo call for the film “Al Mosafer (The Traveller)” at the Venice Film Festival in September 2009. (Associated Press)
Actor Omar Sharif attends the photo call for the film “Al Mosafer (The Traveller)” at the Venice Film Festival in September 2009. (Associated Press)
Associated Press

CAIRO – Omar Sharif, the Egyptian-born actor with the dark, soulful eyes who soared to international stardom in movie epics “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago,” died Friday. He was 83.

Sharif died of a heart attack in a Cairo hospital. The actor had been suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Sharif was Egypt’s biggest box-office star when director David Lean cast him in 1962’s “Lawrence of Arabia.” But he was not the director’s first choice to play Sherif Ali, the tribal leader with whom the enigmatic T.E. Lawrence teams up to help lead the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire.

Lean had hired another actor but dropped him because his eyes weren’t the right color. The film’s producer, Sam Spiegel, went to Cairo to search for a replacement and found Sharif. After passing a screen test that proved he was fluent in English, he got the job.

The film brought him a supporting-actor Oscar nomination and international stardom.

Three years later, Sharif demonstrated his versatility, playing the leading role of a doctor-poet who endures decades of Russian history, including World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, surviving on his art and his love for his beloved Lara in “Dr. Zhivago.”

Although Sharif never achieved that level of success again, he remained a sought-after actor for many years, partly because of his proficiency at playing different nationalities.

He was Argentine-born revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara in “Che!”, Italian Marco Polo in “Marco the Magnificent” and Mongol leader Genghis Khan in “Genghis Khan.” He was a German officer in “The Night of the Generals,” an Austrian prince in “Mayerling” and a Mexican outlaw in “Mackenna’s Gold.”

He was also the Jewish gambler Nick Arnstein opposite Barbra Streisand’s Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl.” The 1968 film was banned in his native Egypt because he was cast as a Jew.

Away from the movies, Sharif was a world-class bridge player who for many years wrote a newspaper column on bridge.

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