Omar Sharif: Remembering Hollywood's most famous Arab actor on his 85th birthday

Published April 10th, 2017 - 09:23 GMT
Omar was the most famous Arab actor in Hollywood. (Consequence of Sound)
Omar was the most famous Arab actor in Hollywood. (Consequence of Sound)

The most famous Arab actor in Hollywood, Omar Sharif, won global renown with his intense performance in David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia" but then went on to essay roles as diverse as of iconic Soviet and Latin American revolutionaries, a German army officer, Genghis Khan, a Russian Tsar, a Pathan horseman and even an Indian Brigadier.

The varied roles of Sharif, whose 85th birth anniversary is on April 10, seem to mirror his unique life -- a Christian who converted to Islam for love, an Egyptian actor whose international career was made possible by a Jewish filmmaker from Hollywood, a champion player of contract bridge, writing a regular syndicated column and several books on the game, and among those who advised George W. Bush against invading Iraq.

Born Michel Demetri Chalhoub on April 10, 1932, in a Catholic family of Lebanese and Syrian descent, Sharif, after a spell in his father's lumber business, decided to make his career in films.

He was going to London to study in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, when offered a starring role in Egyptian film "Sira Fi al-Wadi" ("The Blazing Sun", 1954) opposite Faten Hamama. Falling in love with her, he converted to marry her and they had one son, Tarek. They amicably divorced in 1974 due to Sharif's self-exile in Europe.

Via SensCritique

Sharif, who had notched over 20 films, till he got his chance in "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962), with producer Sam Spiegel and Lean choosing him over a better known French actor. Sharif himself recalled that he was chosen because "I spoke English, had black hair, black eyes and a moustache. It was all luck..."

As Sherif Ali, who silently glides from the dunes early in the movie and kills Lawrence's guide for drinking from his well before taunting him "Have you no fear, English?", he more than held his own against the cast which included Peter O'Toole as Lawrence, Alec Guinness as Prince Feisal, Anthony Quinn as Auda, Claude Rains as Dryden and Jack Hawkins as Gen. Allenby.


Interestingly, Sherif Ali's role is said to have been initially offered to Dilip Kumar, who declined, while Sharif was slated for the bit role of the killed guide. But it was he got the chance. He became close friends with Peter O'Toole, who refused to believe that anyone could be "possibly be called Omar Sharif" and nicknamed him "Cairo Fred".

Sharif, who was included in the film's publicity campaign at Spiegel's insistence, also had a prominent role here, impressing journalists with his charm. He was nominated for the Oscars but didn't win.

Spiegel, who offered Sharif a seven-film contract though at a lesser amount, however did him a big favour by securing him an "exit visa", which were then tightly controlled in Egypt.

His most famous work was as the title role of the tormented poet in Lean's 1965 adaptation of Boris Pasternak's "Doctor Zhivago", opposite Julie Christie as Larissa "Lara" Antipova. His son played the young Yuri Zhivago. He again did not win any of the five Oscars the film garnered for its cinematography and haunting music, especially "Lara's Theme", by Maurice Jarre.

Via Variety

Among other major roles of Sharif, who spoke English, Arabic, French, Italian, Spanish and Greek and seemed comfortable in any cultural and historic setting, were as iconic revolutionary Che Guevara in "Che" (though it turned out the film was funded by the CIA), a German officer trying to trace a psychopathic top officer in "The Night of the Generals", villain Colorado in western treasure hunt "Mackenna's Gold" starring Gregory Peck, and a Soviet spy in Cold War drama "The Tamarind Seed" opposite Julie Andrews.

On TV, he essayed the role of doomed Czar Nicholas II in mini series "Anastasia" as well as of Khuda Daad in an adaption of M.M. Kaye's "The Far Pavillions".

However, a little too fond of gambling, he lost a fortune and therefore had to do many forgettable movies to earn for his family - hence his uncredited cameo as an Indian Brigadier in the super-flop "Inchon" (1981).

Diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2012, he succumbed to a heart attack in a Cairo hospital on July 10, 2015. It was not even six months since the death of Faten, besides whom, he always said, he never loved any woman.

By Vikas Datta

Copyright © IANS India Pvt. Ltd.

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