Story of Cairo Fred, a Cinematic Icon and a Legend; Omar Sharif

It has been over half a decade since the passing of Omar Sharif, yet the cinematic icon is far from forgotten. Cairo Fred, as he was known to his friends, was part of the latter period of Hollywood’s Golden Age, reflecting the qualities that engrossed moviegoers throughout the world: the rugged good looks, the natural acting ability, and the glamor of the red carpet.

Sharif’s life cannot be encapsulated by a single role, nor his life summarized by a gushing obituary. He was larger than life, the reality close to the myth, and his journey anything but orthodox. 

From Academic Talent to Hollywood Star

Sharif was born on April 10, 1932, to a wealthy family in Egypt’s Alexandria, his father a successful precious woods merchant. His mother had a reputation in society as a hostess for the country’s elite, with Egypt’s King Farouk often found a visitor at Sharif’s family home. 

Michel Shalhoub, as he was then known, did not originally plan to be an actor. At Cairo University,  he studies mathematics in physics. In addition to his prowess in STEM subjects, Sharif also had a talent for learning a multitude of languages.

He spoke six languages fluently: Arabic, French, Spanish, Italian, Greek, and English. His interest in acting grew during his university studies, but he initially worked for his father’s business upon graduation. It was in 1954 when he was given a role in Egypt’s The Blazing Sun, that he began the journey that defined the rest of his life.

More Than ‘Just’ an Actor

Sharif reached the top in Hollywood, but it would be criminally limiting to define his life by his acting alone. In addition to being a talented academic, Sharif also had fantastic ability in many other fields, including being a horse racing fanatic and talented contract bridge player. In the prime of his career, he was even ranked amongst the world’s best players. He was so good at the bridge that he co-authored several books, and even released a video game titled Omar Sharif Bridge. 

But it was at the casino that he really gained notoriety. His gambling exploits are the stuff of legend, with his 1966 win at the roulette table being his most famous exploit. He won over a million dollars, equivalent to roughly ten times that amount in today’s money. 

The win had its origin story in a failed romantic attempt, and Sharif used the roulette table to forget his abject effort. Being a little more cavalier than usual, he was willing to let Lady Luck decide his fate, with his strategy being simple: bet on single numbers, with the odds at 37 to 1. He was a Masse Égale bettor that night. For those who are not very familiar, AsiaBet explains that this means he was testing all his luck playing European Roulette with one number only, trying to take the advantage of the large odds of hitting a single number. He did this over and over again and what’s even more surprising, he kept winning.

Sharif’s Roulette strategy was clearly riskier than a simple black or red, but if successful the payouts can be enormous. Every player out there knows this. His winnings were in fact so large, that the actor worried he would be robbed on his way home. He noted that it was the only time he was happy that a woman had rejected his advances! A good old example of the saying: “Unlucky in love, lucky at cards (Roulette).”(Although unlucky just for a day, since he was a true don Juan.)

Sharif’s Most Memorable Roles 

It is almost unfair to select a handful of roles that ‘defined’ Omar Sharif’s career. His entire trajectory is a tapestry that reflects his unequaled talent and exceptional range. But if we are to make a choice, there are certain roles that are interchangeable with Sharif himself, so closely are they related to the actor himself. 

Sharif’s Most Memorable Roles 

It is almost unfair to select a handful of roles that ‘defined’ Omar Sharif’s career. His entire trajectory is a tapestry that reflects his unequaled talent and exceptional range. But if we are to make a choice, there are certain roles that are interchangeable with Sharif himself, so closely are they related to the actor himself. 

Sherif Ali (Lawrence of Arabia) 

The sweeping cinematic classic was released in 1962, yet it still retains the reputation of one of the greatest movies in the history of the silver screen. The movie won seven Oscars, and Sharif had an immense part to play in its success. This was the role that catapulted Sharif from a big name in his own country to a bona fide international star. 

Yuri Zhivago (Doctor Zhivago)

Fans of Omar Sharif are in constant conflict; Sherif Ali or Yuri Zhivago? No matter your position, it is indisputable that Doctor Zhivago was one of Sharif’s iconic roles. It is this performance that brought him some of his greatest critical acclaims, and it is impossible to imagine anyone else playing the Russian physician. 

Nick Arnstein (Omar Sharif) 

Funny Girl is a romantic musical that truly showcases Sharif’s acting range. Based on entertainer Fanny Brice’s life, Omar Sharif starred opposite Barbara Streisand as Nick Arnstein. His engrossing portrayal of Brice’s love interest was arguably his best, with the couple’s turbulent relationship and opportunity for Sharif to deliver an exceptionally layered performance. 

Sharif’s Final Days 

Tabloids like the Daily Mail feed on gossip, tragedy, and falls from grace. Indeed, it is true that Sharif’s final days stood in stark contrast to the brilliance of his acting career. He had lost his fortune, endured a painful divorce, and his once towering figure was ravaged by age and Alzheimer’s disease. 

But it is not his vices or his failings, nor his personal tragedies that define Omar Sharif. His legend continues to live years following his passing, while Sherif Ali, Yuri Zhivago, and countless others will guarantee his immortality in our collective memory. 

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