Sharif, who spoke Arabic, English, French, Spanish and Italian fluently, was often cast as a foreigner of some sort. He bridled at travel restrictions imposed by the government of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, leading to self-exile in Europe. The estrangement led to an amicable divorce from his wife, the iconic Egyptian actress Faten Hamama. He had converted to Islam in order to marry her. He was a lifelong horse racing enthusiast, and at one time ranked among the world's top contract bridge players.
Omar Sharif, whose adopted surname means "noble" or "nobleman" in Arabic, was born on 10 April 1932 as Michel Dimitri Chalhoub in Alexandria, Egypt, to a family of Melkite Catholic descent: he belonged to a small ethnocultural minority known as the Syria-Lebanese 'Antiochian' Greek Catholics of Egypt (Rum Katuleek al Shawamm), an offshoot of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch
His father, Joseph Chalhoub, a precious woods merchant originally from Zahle, Lebanon, moved to the port city of Alexandria in the early 20th century, where Sharif was later born. His family moved to Cairo when he was four. His mother, Claire Saada originally from Latakia, Syria, was a noted society hostess, and Egypt's King Farouk was a regular visitor prior to his deposition in 1952.
In his youth, Sharif studied at Victoria College, Cairo, where he showed a talent for languages. He later graduated from Cairo University with a degree in mathematics and physics. He worked for a while in his father's precious wood business before studying acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. In 1955, Sharif changed his name and converted to Islam in order to marry fellow Egyptian actress Faten Hamama.
In 1954, Sharif began his acting career in Egypt with a role in Shaytan Al-Sahra ("Devil of the Desert"). In the same year he appeared in Sira` Fi al-Wadi ("Struggle in the Valley"). He quickly rose to stardom, appearing in Egyptian productions, including La Anam ("Sleepless") in 1958, Sayyidat al-Qasr and the Anna Karenina adaptation Nahr el hub ("The River of Love") in 1961. He and his wife co-starred in several movies as romantic leads.
Sharif's first English-language role was that of Sherif Ali in David Lean's historical epic Lawrence of Arabia in 1962. His performance earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture, as well as a shared Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year – Actor. Casting Sharif in what is now considered one of the "most demanding supporting roles in Hollywood history" was both complex and risky as he was virtually unknown at the time outside of Egypt. However, as historian Steven Charles Caton notes, Lean insisted on using ethnic actors when possible to make the film authentic. Sharif would later use his ambiguous ethnicity in other films: "I spoke French, Greek, Italian, Spanish and even Arabic", he said. As Sharif noted, his accent enabled him to "play the role of a foreigner without anyone knowing exactly where I came from", which he stated proved highly successful throughout his career.
Over the next few years, Sharif co-starred in other films, including Behold a Pale Horse (1964). Director Fred Zinnemann said he chose Sharif partly on the suggestion of David Lean. "He said he was an absolutely marvelous actor, 'If you possibly can take a look at him.'" Film historian Richard Schickel wrote that Sharif gave a "truly wonderful performance", especially noteworthy because of his totally different role in Lawrence of Arabia: "It is hard to believe that the priest and the sheik are played by the same man". Sharif also played a Yugoslav wartime patriot in The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964), the Mongolian conqueror in Genghis Khan (1965), a German military officer in The Night of the Generals (1967), Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria in Mayerling (1968) and Che Guevara in Che! (1969).
In 1965, Sharif reunited with Lean to play the title role in the epic love story Doctor Zhivago (1965), an adaptation of Boris Pasternak's 1957 novel. Set during World War I and the Russian Revolution, Sharif played the role of Yuri Zhivago, a poet and physician. Film historian Constantine Santas explained that Lean intended the film to be a poetic portrayal of the period, with large vistas of landscapes combined with a powerful score by Maurice Jarre. He noted that Sharif's role is "passive", his eyes reflecting "reality" which then become "the mirror of reality we ourselves see". In a commentary on the DVD (2001 edition), Sharif described Lean's style of directing as similar to a general commanding an army. For his performance, he won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama.
Sharif was also praised for his portrayal of Nicky Arnstein in Funny Girl (1968). He portrayed the husband of Fanny Brice, played by Barbra Streisand in her first film role. His decision to work alongside Streisand angered Egypt's government because she was Jewish, and the country condemned the film. It was also "immediately banned" in numerous Arab nations. Streisand herself jokingly responded, "You think Cairo was upset? You should've seen the letter I got from my Aunt Rose!". Sharif and Streisand became romantically involved during the filming. He admitted later that he did not find Streisand attractive at first, but her appeal soon overwhelmed him: "About a week from the moment I met her", he recalled, "I was madly in love with her. I thought she was the most gorgeous girl I'd ever seen in my life...I found her physically beautiful, and I started lusting after this woman." Sharif reprised the role in the film's sequel, Funny Lady in 1975.
Among Sharif's other films were the western Mackenna's Gold (1969), playing an outlaw opposite Gregory Peck; the thriller Juggernaut (1974), which co-starred Richard Harris, and the romantic drama The Tamarind Seed (1974), co-starring Julie Andrews, and directed by Blake Edwards. Sharif also contributed comic cameo performances in Edwards' The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) and in the 1984 spy-film spoof Top Secret! In 2003, he received acclaim for his leading role in Monsieur Ibrahim, a French-language film adaptation of the novel Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran, as a Muslim Turkish merchant who becomes a father figure for a Jewish boy. For this performance, Sharif received the César Award for Best Actor. Sharif's later film roles included performances in Hidalgo (2004) and Rock the Casbah (2013).
Sharif's final role was as lead actor in the short science education film 1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham, which was directed by Ahmed Salim and was released as part of the United Nations' International Year of Light campaign, operated by UNESCO.
Sharif once ranked among the world's top 50 contract bridge players, and played in an exhibition match before the Shah of Iran. With Charles Goren, Sharif co-wrote a syndicated newspaper bridge column for the Chicago Tribune for several years, but mostly turned over the writing of the column to Tannah Hirsch. He was also both author and co-author of several books on bridge and licensed his name to a bridge video game; initially released in an MS-DOS version and Amiga version in 1992, Omar Sharif on Bridge is still sold in Windows and mobile platform versions. Computer Gaming World in 1992 described the game as "easy to get into, challenging to play and well-designed", and named it one of the year's best strategy games. In 1993 the magazine stated that "it does not play a very good game of bridge", however, and criticized it for inadequate documentation and forcing players to conform to its bidding style. The magazine recommended two other bridge games instead.
Sharif was a regular in casinos in France.
Sharif lived in Egypt from his birth in 1932 until he moved to Europe in 1965. He recounted that in 1932, his father "wasn't a wealthy man", but "earned quite a bit of money". Before the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, King Farouk frequented Sharif's family home, and became a friend and card-game partner of Sharif's mother. His mother was an elegant and charming hostess who was all too delighted with the association because it gave her the privilege of "consorting only with the elite" of Egyptian society. Sharif also recounted that his father's timber business was very successful during that time in ways that Sharif describes as dishonest or immoral. By contrast, after 1952, Sharif stated that wealth changed hands in Egypt, under Nasser's nationalisation policies. His father's business "took a beating".
In 1954, Sharif starred in the film Struggle in the Valley opposite his wife, who shared a kiss with him, although she had previously refused to kiss on screen. The two fell in love; Sharif converted to Islam and married her. They had one son, Tarek Sharif, born in 1957 in Egypt, who appeared in Doctor Zhivago as Yuri at the age of eight. The couple separated in 1966 and their marriage ended in divorce in 1974. Sharif never remarried; he stated that after his divorce he never fell in love with another woman again.
The Nasser government imposed travel restrictions in the form of "exit visas", so Sharif's travel to take part in international films was sometimes impeded, something he found to be intolerable. These restrictions influenced Sharif's decision to remain in Europe between his film shoots, a decision that cost him his marriage, though the couple remained friends. It was a major crossroads in Sharif's life and changed him from an established family man to a committed bachelor living in European hotels. When commenting about his fame and life in Hollywood, Sharif said, "It gave me glory, but it gave me loneliness also. And a lot of missing my own land, my own people and my own country". When Sharif's affair with Streisand was made public in the Egyptian press, his Egyptian citizenship was almost withdrawn by the Egyptian government because of Streisand's being Jewish and vocal support of Israel, which was then in a state of war with Egypt.
Sharif became friends with Peter O'Toole during the making of Lawrence of Arabia. They appeared in several other films together and remained close friends. He was also good friends with Egyptologist Zahi Hawass. Actor and friend Tom Courtenay revealed in an interview for the 19 July 2008 edition of BBC Radio's Test Match Special that Sharif supported Hull City Association Football Club and in the 1970s he would telephone their automated scoreline from his home in Paris for score updates. Sharif was given an honorary degree by the University of Hull in 2010 and he used the occasion to meet Hull City football player Ken Wagstaff. Sharif also had an interest in horse racing spanning more than 50 years. He was often seen at French racecourses, with Deauville-La Touques Racecourse being his favourite. Sharif's horses won a number of important races and he had his best successes with Don Bosco, who won the Prix Gontaut-Biron, Prix Perth and Prix du Muguet. He also wrote for a French horse racing magazine.
In later life, Sharif lived mostly in Cairo with his family. In addition to his son, he had two grandsons, Omar (born 1983 in Montreal) and Karim. The younger Omar Sharif is also an actor.
Sharif had a triple heart bypass in 1992 and suffered a mild heart attack in 1994. Until his bypass, Sharif smoked 100 cigarettes a day. He quit smoking after the operation.
In May 2015 it was reported that Sharif was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. His son Tarek Sharif said that his father was becoming confused when remembering some of the biggest films of his career; he would mix up the names of his best-known films, Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia, often forgetting where they were filmed.
On 10 July 2015, less than six months after his ex-wife's death at the same age, Sharif died after suffering a heart attack at a hospital in Cairo.
On 12 July 2015, Sharif's funeral was held at the Grand Mosque of Mushir Tantawi in eastern Cairo. The funeral was attended by a group of Sharif's relatives, friends and Egyptian actors, his casket draped in the Egyptian flag and a black shroud. His coffin was later taken to the El-Sayeda Nafisa cemetery in southern Cairo, where he was buried.
In November 2005, Sharif was awarded the inaugural Sergei Eisenstein Medal by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in recognition of his significant contributions to world film and cultural diversity. The medal, which is awarded very infrequently, is named after Russian director Sergei Eisenstein. Only 25 have been struck, as determined by the agreement between UNESCO, Russia's Mosfilm and the Vivat Foundation.