Hollywood’s Last Cosmopolitan – Omar Sharif 1932-2015
He was the least likely romantic leading man in Hollywood history. A native of Egypt who had made his mark in that country’s cinema during its greatest period in the 1950s. He was cast in a role that seemed to require him only to look like a certain type: the mysterious Arab riding the forbidding desert on a camel as if appearing out of the heat waves rising up.
This was no ordinary movie entrance however. The movie was Lawrence of Arabia and upon its release in 1962, the Arab riding into the frame from an extreme distance was Omar Sharif. Dressed head to toe in black, his Sherif Ali created a sharp contrast with the fair Peter O’Toole as the title character; his T.E. Lawrence was a blond dressed in white robes. In director David Lean’s vision, Lawrence as the interloper in the Middle East’s tribal conflicts would never completely fit in.
The role made the young actor an international sensation and a sex symbol. He was in demand because, like Anthony Quinn, he could play a variety of ethnic roles. The difference was that his characters were leading men. He soon worked again for Lean, playing a Russian, the title character in the epic Doctor Zhivago. As the doctor/poet title character, he endures the upheaval of the Russian Revolution while longing for his true love, the elusive Lara (Julie Christie). This epic war and love story cemented Sharif’s place as a sex symbol of the decade.
His third big role cast him as another ethnic romantic lead. In Funny Girl (1968), he played the Russian Jewish gambler Nicky Arnstein, the irresponsible husband of Fanny Brice (Barbra Streisand). This threw Sharif into a controversy bigger than his stardom. Streisand is Jewish; many Arabs were not happy that Sharif shared love scenes with her the year after the Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors. The actor nearly lost his Egyptian citizenship but not his standing as a star.
Sharif remained a major star until his death on July 10, 2015. He played such different characters as Genghis Khan, Che Guevara and an old Turkish Muslim who befriends a Jewish boy in Monsieur Ibrahim, a French film that provided his last big role. While his stardom did not wane the roles were not as good. In time he found more of his time and attention spent on a lifetime passion, the card game bridge. He completed in bridge tournaments and even wrote a column on the card game for the Chicago Tribune for several years.
No matter the quantity of his work or the quality of roles offered him, he found no shortage of people who remembered his three major roles of the 1960s, (“Lawrence of Arabia,” “Dr. Zhivago” and “Funny Girl”). Questioned by the Los Angeles Times about the movies in 2003, he said, “It’s true when people recognize me these days, those three films are the ones they talk about, But it doesn’t bother me. It’s better than having done none they remember. I find it endearing.”
Omar Sharif’s passing means the end of an era when stardom outweighed nationality. It did not matter that he was an Egyptian or a Muslim; he was merely a man who could (and did) drive women wild. It was enough and a nice legacy he leaves behind.
– Louis Burklow (aka, Hollywood Country Boy), Senior Staff Writer, Phoenix Genesis
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