Within two years of his debut in “Lawrence of Arabia,” Sharif’s next major Hollywood roles were as an Armenian king in “The Fall of the Roman Empire” (1964) and as a Spanish priest in Fred Zinnemann’s Spanish Civil War drama, “Behold a Pale Horse” (1964). This turn away from typecasting opened further doors and led to what might be Sharif’s most significant role, the lead in David Lean’s "Doctor Zhivago" (1965). In the mid-1960s he was cast in less well-remembered films as well as box-office successes such as “Funny Girl” (1968), in which he played (and sang) the role of the German-Jewish conman Nicky Arnstein.
From tribal Arab leader to Spanish peacemaker to Soviet dissident to New York gambler, Sharif was one of very few non-European actors offered a variety of roles in Hollywood that weren’t simply “ethnic” typecasts. That Sharif was able to navigate the deeply racialized casting practices of Hollywood and gain major leading roles without fully disavowing his origins may have been his greatest achievement.
Of course, he remained an exotic, even self-orientalizing, figure in all of his roles, but he was also able to shift from context to context in a way that was liberating and remarkably unfettered. Even today, actors of Arab or broader Middle Eastern origins are largely relegated to roles that arise from Western fantasies about the region.
Those familiar with Sharif’s international reputation are still often unaware of his career in the remarkable film industry of 1950s Egypt. Between 1954-1961, Sharif made 16 films, several of which are still remembered by Arab filmgoers as classics. Sharif began acting for the screen at the age of 21, and while starring in one of his first films, Youssef Chahine’s “Sira` fi al-Wadi” (Struggle in the Valley, 1954) fell in love with his co-star Faten Hamama, who was already a major figure in Egyptian cinema, and who he later married. (She passed away last January.)
Hamama is regarded as the preeminent actress of the Egyptian post-revolutionary melodrama, and Sharif proved his own star power in the six films in which he acted alongside her. His supporting role in the melodramatic tour de force “La Anam” (I Can’t Sleep, 1958) was psychologically complex in a way rare for the genre.
Of his earlier Egyptian films, Henri Barakat’s “Fi Baytna Rajul,” (A Man in Our House, 1961) perhaps came closest to showcasing the dramatic heights that Sharif could achieve. This film memorialized the Egyptian anti-colonial struggle by casting Sharif in the role of a young revolutionary who seeks shelter in the home of an apolitical middle class family while being hunted by the police for assassinating the prime minister.
His role as a revolutionary fighter was somewhat at odds with his own politics, in that he refused to support Nasser — or, for that matter, any other leader. It is fairly remarkable that over the course of his career, while being one of the most famous Egyptian and Arab cultural figures in the world, Sharif was rarely known to take political stands.
As conveyed by his debonair, sometimes nearly aristocratic, personal style, Sharif came from a cosmopolitan family. Born in Alexandria on April 10, 1932, his family belonged to a community of Levantine Syrio-Lebanese émigrés then still thriving in mid-century Egypt. His given name of Michel Shalhoub marked him as a minority of a minority — a Melkite Christian in an Egypt where Coptics constituted the vast majority of Christians.
As an ambitious and charismatic youth at the Victoria College of Cairo, Sharif rubbed elbows with the sons of kings and the Egyptian elite. In the socially and politically transformative period of the late 1940s, he rose in school, assuming the position of head prefect (or, “head boy”) and giving the student speech at his graduation.
A classmate of the Palestinian-American academic Edward Said, Sharif was memorialized by Said thusly: “With a huge carnation in his buttonhole, smartly polished black shoes and glisteningly striped tie, he was the very model of the supercilious head boy.” Said’s other recollections of his older classmate are generally less than kind to Sharif, whom he describes as being sycophantic toward British colonial officials in his graduation speech.
Nonetheless, Said’s portrait of Sharif bespeaks an ambition and perhaps a talent to adapt that guided Sharif as he moved from an elite education to becoming an Egyptian star in his 20s, to continuing on to international stardom in his 30s and 40s.
While his moment as a matinee idol and household name had passed by the mid-1970s, he nonetheless continued to act from time to time — largely taking cameos in B-movies or in larger roles in independent films. Among the most memorable of these was title role in "Monsieur Ibrahim" (2003), in which he beautifully played a Parisian shopkeeper shepherding a lonely neighborhood boy into adolescence. The latter role earned him a French Césare award for best actor to complement the Golden Globe awards he had won for "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Doctor Zhivago."
After decades of living in the U.S. and Europe, Sharif eventually went “home” — returning not only to Cairo for his final years, but also to the Egyptian screen, where he starred in films such as "Al-Musafir" (The Traveler, 2009) and "Hassan wa Murqus" (Hassan and Markus, 2008). The latter film, a pan-Arab blockbuster, matched Sharif with the undisputed superstar of the Egyptian comedy, Adel Imam, and cast Sharif as a Muslim cleric and Imam as a priest.
During a time of rising sectarian conflict, "Hassan wa Murqus" found an eager audience in millions of Arabs who sought solace from the horrors of daily news in a comedy that mocks religious intolerance and celebrates a certain kind of cosmopolitanism — one that marked Sharif’s youth and reflected his talents but sadly has faded in parts of the region.