“An actor of beguiling charm and menacing intensity, ready to jump into the skin of any character and transform himself seamlessly.”
– Peter O’Toole, on his Lawrence of Arabia co-star, Omar Sharif
Omar Sharif, born to a family of Lebanese descent in Egypt and star of David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia passed away on the 10th of July, 2015. For what has been over half a century, Omar Sharif never failed to mesmerize and charm the audiences with his performances, so much so that despite appearing in only a handful of mainstream films, Sharif remains touted as arguably the greatest foreign actor in Hollywood.
A graduate from Cairo University (whose famous alumni clique include Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein, Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Boutros-Boutros Ghali) Golden-Globe winner and Academy-award nominated Sharif’s charisma and spontaneity, was a refreshing change from the ordinarily tight-lipped and formal conduct of the film industry, which is why it was no surprise for many to witness his meteoric rise to fame with films like Doctor Zhivago and Funny Girl.
I was especially impressed by his performance in Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (a film my grandfather made me watch on VCR) where Sharif portrayed the tribe leader Sherif Ali. He appears almost like a force of nature, like a djinn and has perhaps, the longest and the most captivating opening sequence in film history. In fact in my opinion, he almost stole the limelight from O’Toole. Such was the gravitas of that man on camelback (So much so that Sherif Ali was often the reference point for characters on horse and camelback. Eg. The Medjai in The Mummy).
Sharif was also the solution to the many diversity issues that have and that still plagues Hollywood today. Not only did he prove that a person of color (The other being Sidney Poitier) could make it big in cinema, but he stymied the industry’s one-color-fits-all attitude by looking and acting the part of any ethnic character as was required of him, may that be a Spanish priest, an Austrian prince, a Nazi officer or even a Jewish gangster (Furthermore helped by Sharif’s proficiency in over 5 languages). He remains until date, the biggest actor from the Middle East in Hollywood. He was even lucky perhaps. Maybe in the post 9/11 world, he may have been relegated to portray an Arab terrorist rather than a Russian physician and poet.
Over the last few decades, his popularity may have somewhat been obscured by the glitz and pace of the film industry, but if gems like Monsieur Ibrahim are any testament, his talent and reputation remained undiminished, even in death. Farewell, Mr. Sharif. May Yuri finally find his Lara, again.