Movie star Omar Sharif has died. The actor, who was 83 years old, appeared in some of Hollywood’s most moving and grand motion pictures. Sharif made them more so.
Among his roles are the passenger ship’s captain in the terrorism-themed Juggernaut (1974), leading while balancing conflicting interests with an explosives expert played by Richard Harris. I think, too, of his blend of great potential and sadness as the daring entrepreneurial Jewish playboy—which nearly cost the Egyptian actor, reported to have converted from Greek Catholicism to Islam, his citizenship and career—in Funny Girl. From his role as the desert Arabian teaming against the Ottoman empire with Peter O’Toole’s title character in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) to his role as a Moslem Turk adopting a Jewish boy in Monsieur Ibrahim (2003), Sharif dominates the screen.
But three movies capture his dark, sensually masculine and physical magnetism. In David Lean’s masterful Lawrence of Arabia, Sharif strides between measured and raw with his backswept black hair. As the title character in Lean’s epic Doctor Zhivago (1965), based on Boris Pasternak’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Russian novel, Sharif is gentle, intelligent and aristocratically civilized yet kindling with passion to write poetry, defy the Soviets and exact justice while falling in love with Lara (Julie Christie) during the Russian Revolution, always holding life as the highest standard—his is an unforgettable and powerful performance that precisely measures the impact in pictures of the incalculable toll of dictatorship on the man of ability. Doctor Zhivago is so mesmerizing, enchanting, and beautiful with its brilliant score by Maurice Jarre (which Sharif thought was too sentimental) and everlasting scenes of Moscow, Yuriatin and Varykino that it’s easy to overlook the scope and talent of Omar Sharif as the crippled man of the mind. Zhivago is Sharif’s best performance.
Perhaps my favorite role by Omar Sharif is as Davich, the peasant European revolutionary in screenwriter Terence Rattigan’s 1964 film, The Yellow Rolls-Royce. It is as the radical idealist opposite Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca) in the tense, explosive, inspiring final vignette—probably more relevant than ever—that Omar Sharif matches hard, physical allure with kind, intellectual depth. His intensity is irresistible but it is also challenging. Bergman’s aristocrat is at the audience’s sympathetic center and one can’t blame her reticence to engage his character’s cause. But he is the embodiment in Rattigan’s short, polished featurette of the man of reason and the man of action. As the unconquered radical, he is every inch the hero.
Sharif lived privately as a playboy by his own admission, though was also one of the world’s top bridge players, creating a regular newspaper feature and, during his remarkable career, he portrayed Genghis Khan, Czar Nicholas II, Marco Polo and Che Guevara. He also played Captain Nemo in The Mysterious Island (1973). Omar Sharif made the audience think in nearly every role. His death is a great loss.