Omar al-Sharif was born Michel Dimitri Shalhoub, to an Alexandrian family of Lebanese descent. He was discovered by director Yusef Chahine, who cast him in three films: Sira’afil-Wadi (Feud in the Valley, 1953), Shaytan al-Sahara (The Desert Devil, 1954), and Sira’a fil-Mina (Feud in the Port, 1955). The friendship with Chahine soured however, and all cooperation between them ended after Feud in the Port.
A passionate love affair with star Fatin Hamama led to marriage, following her divorce from director Ezz al-Din Zulfiqar. Several films later, in some of which he costarred with his wife, including Ard al-Salam (Land of Peace, 1955) by Kamal al-Shaykh and La Anam (I Don’t Sleep, 1957) by Salah Abu Sayf, he was chosen by French director, Jacques Baratier, to star in Goha (1958).
Until 1963, when David Lean cast him as Sharif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia, he acted only in Egyptian films, some now classics: Ihna al-Talamiza (We are the Students, 1959) by Atef Salem, Bidaya wa Nihaya (A Beginning and an End, 1960) by Salah Abu Sayf, and Fi Baytuna Ragul (A Man in Our House, 1961) by Henry Barakat.
With his nomination for an Oscar as best supporting actor in Lawrence of Arabia, Omar al-Sharif became an international star, and for over twenty years he acted only in foreign films, with one exception, al-Mamalik (The Mamelukes, 1965) by Atef Salem. He appeared in The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) by Anthony Mann, Dr Zhivago (1965) by David Lean, and Funny Girl (1968) by William Wyler.
From 1969, his acting career went downhill, and he began to accept minor parts in poor films. Finally he returned to Egypt and made four films: Ayyoub (1984) and al-Aragoz (The Puppet, 1989), both TV productions directed by Hany Lasheen; Muwatin Misri (Egyptian Citizen, 1993) by Salah Abu Sayf; and Dihk wa Li’b wa Gad wa Hubb (Laughter, Play, Seriousness, and Love, 1993), Tarek al-Tilmissani’s first film.
None of these films achieved the success worthy of Omar al-Sharif’s status in Egyptian cinema as its only actor to rise to international stardom. But, alongside the best of his films, his dashing good looks and his skill at bridge ensure that he is not forgotten.