Omar Sharif Embodied Diversity in Roles and Experiences

sharifActor Omar Sharif was a rarity in the film industry and life, for his roles that demonstrated his diversity in languages and cultural nuances and his experiences as a renowned bridge expert and a peripatetic gambler. The Egyptian born star, who already was in declining health from Alzheimer’s disease, died Friday at age 83 after suffering a heart attack in Cairo, Egypt.

The actor starred in several classic films like Lawrence of Arabia, Funny Girl and Doctor Zhivago, foreign films and more recent ones like Hidalgo over his long career. In his heyday, Sharif was an iconic screen heartthrob with his dark and then-exotic looks. He was a casting director’s dream with his versatility and varied accents (he made films in at least five languages).

Of Syrian and Lebanese extraction, Sharif first gained fame in Arabic-language films before becoming a worldwide star and shooting films in English and several other languages. Lawrence of Arabia (1962), which many consider to be his best role was actually his first English-language film and earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. In one of his more recent films, Monsieur Ibrahim et les Fleurs du Coran (2003), he spoke French and won the César (France’s version of an Oscar).

Sharif’s cultural chameleon ability would undoubtedly not be tolerated today, with onscreen diversity and authenticity a controversial topic. However, during his career, he played Jewish Nicky Arnstein (which in the 1968 was questioned since he was Egyptian and the “Six-Day War” was the prior year), an Armenian king in The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), a Yugoslav patriot fighting the Nazis in The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1965), the Mongol leader in Genghis Khan (1965), a Russian in Dr. Zhivago (1965), a German officer in The Night of the Generals (1967), and Cuban revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Che (1969). These are just some of his diverse roles. Ben Kingsley may be the only other actor around who has had as cross-cultural a career (for many of the same chameleon abilities).

Other actors have been cast in roles that depict other cultures, but usually they are not convincing (the Indians speaking Yiddish in Blazing Saddles was as convincing as the Indians in F-Troop). But they do not shape shift into the role in a believable form.

The Los Angeles Times noted that some of the historical issue, and recent casting in Aloha, could cynically be attributed to “Hollywood’s inability to distinguish between ethnicities, or at least to cultivate actors from other places, than anything else.” Sharif’s talent and background enabled his ability to embody diverse parts. Ben Kingsley may be the only other actor around who has had as cross-cultural a career (for many of the same chameleon abilities).

Born Michel Demitri Shalhoub on April 10, 1932, Sharif was raised in Alexandria, Egypt, where his father was successful lumber merchant. He was raised as a Catholic, and studied math and physics at Cairo University before going to work for his father.

In 1954, he got a role in an Arabic film courtesy of the lead, a Muslim who was the top actress in Eqypt named Faten Hamama. He later converted to Islam and married Faten in 1955. They made several more movies together, had a son Tariq in 1957, and eventually divorced in 1974. He never remarried, but had legendary relationships with top actresses in the 1960s.

Besides his acting abilities, two hobbies filled his later years: bridge and gambling. Sharif developed a reputation as one of the world’s best-known contract bridge players. He co-wrote a syndicated newspaper column and several books on the card game. He also licensed his name for Omar Sharif Bridge, a computer game.

His other passion, gambling, was his downfall. He lived in hotel after hotel around the world hitting the local casinos and horse races. Gambling was his downfall, however, and he lost his fortune.

Few have embodied such diversity in life experiences, as well as the classic roles that gave Omar Sharif worldwide fame. His son announced the actor had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in May. The one-time heartthrob spent recent years in Egypt, where he died today.

Opinion by Dyanne Weiss

IMDB: Omar Sharif
New York Times: Omar Sharif, 83, a Star in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and ‘Doctor Zhivago,’ Dies
Los Angeles Times: Omar Sharif, a shapeshifter on screen, was a trailblazer and a flashpoint
Daily Mail: He seduced a string of beauties but lost his one true love – and his fortune. As it’s revealed Omar Sharif has Alzheimer’s.
Los Angeles Times: Actor Omar Sharif has Alzheimer’s disease, his agent confirms

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