Actor, international playboy and avid bridge promoter Omar Sharif died at a Cairo hospital on July 10. The cause of death was a heart attack. He was 83.
While Sharif is best known for his Oscar-nominated turn in Lawrence of Arabia and his performance in Doctor Zhivago, his true love was bridge. “Acting is my business,” he once said, “bridge is my passion.”
The Egyptian-born Sharif represented the United Arab Republic bridge squad in the 1964 World Team Olympiad, and was the playing captain of the Egyptian team in the 1968 World Team Olympiad.
Once ranked among the 50 best players in the world, he formed the Omar Sharif Bridge Circus to perform exhibition matches before such spectators as the shah of Iran. Asked once why he spent so much time at bridge when he could have been making movies, he answered, “The real question is why I spend so much time making movies when I could be playing bridge.”
He organized the Omar Sharif Bridge Circus in 1967 to showcase bridge. The Circus was a traveling tour of bridge players that promoted the game via exhibition matches. The team included Leon Yallouze, an Egyptian bridge pro, and Claude Delmouly, a French expert, as well as Benito Garozzo, Pietro Forquet and Giorgio Belladonna of the Italian Blue Team.
In 1970, Sharif and the circus went to London’s famous Piccadilly Hotel for an 80-rubber match against British experts Jeremy Flint and Jonathan Cansino. The stakes were £1 per point —huge stakes even by today’s standards (about $1.55 per point). The purpose of the event was to present bridge as a rich, exciting spectacle and to break through into television to bring the game within the reach of millions. The Circus ultimately won the match by 5,470 points, but Sharif still incurred a net loss after paying all related expenses.
The Circus, under the management of Mike Ledeen, caravanned through Canada and the U.S. in 1970—71. Sharif’s team joined with the Dallas Aces for a seven-city tour —Chicago, Winnipeg, Los Angeles, St. Paul-Minneapolis, Dallas, Detroit and Philadelphia. In each city, a team of local experts participated in the exhibition.
In 1975, sponsored by the Lancia division of Fiat, Sharif and members of the Italian Blue Team faced off in four challenge matches against American teams. Sharif’s team won in Chicago, but was defeated in New York, Los Angeles and Miami.
The Omar Sharif World Individual held in 1990 offered the largest total purse ($200,000) in the history of bridge.
Sharif authored “Ma Vie au Bridge,” co-authored a syndicated bridge column for decades, first with Charles Goren and later, Tannah Hirsch. He was also the hand analyst for the Epson worldwide bridge contests.