Egyptian actor Omar Sharif
A future post will offer an overview of the career of peplum (sword-and-sandal movie) actor Jacques Sernas, whose passing earlier this month has been all but ignored by the myopic English-language media.
Omar Sharif: Film career beginnings in North Africa
Like Jacques Sernas’, the death of Omar Sharif at age 83 following a heart attack on July 10 would have been ignored by the English-language media (especially in the U.S.) as well had Sharif remained a star within the Arabic-speaking world. After all, an “international” star is only worth remembering if s/he has toplined at least a couple of major Hollywood movies. And that is something Omar Sharif managed to accomplish.
The Alexandria-born (on April 10, 1932) Sharif began his film career in his native Egypt, where he was first seen in Youssef Chahine’s 1954 socially conscious drama Siraa Fil-Wadi (supposedly translated as “Struggle in the Valley”). About 20 Arabic-language films would follow. Among the most notable titles were:
- Jacques Baratier’s French-Tunisian fable Goha (1958), starring Omar Sharif in the title role, hopelessly enamored of youthful beauty Zina Bouzaiade (whose sister is played by a very young Claudia Cardinale). Goha shared the Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize with Bernard Taisant’s Visages de bronze.
- Kamal El Sheikh’s romantic comedy Lady of the Castle (1959), co-starring Sharif’s then wife Faten Hamama (1955–1974), with whom he was featured in eight films. A top star in the Arab World and with more than 100 movies to her credit, Hamama died at age 83 last Jan. 17.
Movie stardom boosted by ‘Doctor Zhivago’
As the fictitious Arab revolt leader Sherif Ali, supporting Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence in David Lean’s worldwide blockbuster and multiple Oscar winner Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Omar Sharif became a bona fide international star – i.e., he received Hollywood offers. He also received a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination, but lost to Ed Begley in Richard Brooks’ Sweet Bird of Youth.
From that time until the end of the ’60s, Sharif was featured almost invariably in big-budget English-language productions in which he was cast as a Russian, Spaniard, Mongolian, Austrian, and Argentinean, among other nationalities. Most notable among his films of the period were:
- Another worldwide blockbuster directed by David Lean, Doctor Zhivago (1965), set around the time of the Russian Revolution and with Golden Globe winner Omar Sharif surprisingly effective in the title role. Julie Christie was cast as the love interest of the titular character, while a supporting cast of mostly well-regarded English players (Alec Guinness, Rita Tushingham, Tom Courtenay, etc.) provided some British flair to the long, long Russian proceedings.
- William Wyler’s Fanny Brice musical biopic Funny Girl (1968), which introduced Barbra Streisand to the screen. This time around, Sharif was the love interest of the titular character.
Movie stardom busted by Che Guevara
Despite Funny Girl, for all purposes a Barbra Streisand star vehicle, near the end of the decade Omar Sharif’s film stardom suffered a couple of major blows:
- Terence Young’s flop remake of Mayerling (1968), with Sharif as the Archduke Rudolf of Austria and Catherine Deneuve as his lover, Maria Vetsera (Charles Boyer and Danielle Darrieux in Anatole Litvak’s 1936 international hit).
- Richard Fleischer’s disastrous Che! (1969), with screenplay credited to veteran Sy Bartlett (Kansas City Princess, The Big Country) and formerly blacklisted screenwriter Michael Wilson (The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Planet of the Apes) – from a story by Bartlett and TV writer David Karp. Sharif starred as Che Guevara and Jack Palance as Fidel Castro.
“Che!, 20th Century Fox’s biography of Ernesto Che Guevara, is important as a reminder that the old Hollywood Dream Factory still has the constitution of a goat,” wrote the New York Times’ Vincent Canby. “It can consume almost anything – including a subject as complex and abrasive as the late Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary – and reduce it to the consistency of strained spinach.” Further down in his review, Canby complains that Omar Sharif “plays Che passively, as a sort of unkempt Dr. Zhivago.”
Despite these setbacks, Sharif would continue to work steadily in the ensuing decades – although he would never recover his former popularity.
In fact, from the early 1970s on, he usually landed major roles in more modest productions and/or box office duds (The Horsemen, The Mysterious Island, The Tamarind Seed, The Puppeteer) and supporting parts or cameos in bigger-budget fare – some popular, some not (Funny Lady, Bloodline, Inchon, Mountains of the Moon).
Below: Omar Sharif discusses ‘Monsieur Ibrahim,’ the Israeli-Palestinian divide and tribalism in the Arab World while lambasting the U.S. and its allies for the Iraq War.
Omar Sharif in the early 21st century: Best Actor César winner
For his performance as a Muslim Turkish shop owner who befriends a Parisian Jewish boy (Pierre Boulanger) in François Dupeyron’s 2003 film version of Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s novel and play Monsieur Ibrahim / Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran, Omar Sharif (“I found it very beautiful and kind and gentle”) won the French Academy of Cinema’s César Award and the Audience Award at the Venice Film Festival. That same year, he was presented with the festival’s Career Golden Lion.
See also: Omar Sharif promoting The Traveler at the Venice Film Festival.
Known as an inveterate gambler (“I was always one film behind my debts”), Sharif went on working. In recent years, he narrated Roland Emmerich’s widely panned 10,000 BC, toplining Steven Strait, Camilla Belle, and Cliff Curtis. He was also featured as himself in Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s A Castle in Italy / Un château en Italie (2013), starring Bruni Tedeschi, Louis Garrel, and Filippo Timi.
Although recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, Omar Sharif continued acting until not long before his death. He narrates and provides the voice of the grandfather in Ahmed Salim’s animated short 1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham, which, according to the IMDb, is expected to come out this year.
Omar Sharif Jr.
Omar Sharif’s grandson, sometime actor Omar Sharif Jr., made headlines after publicly coming out as gay in an essay published in the American gay magazine The Advocate. Sharif Jr.’s article was a commentary on the victory of Islamist parties in Egypt’s 2012 national elections. (See also: Image of Omar Sharif Jr. with Kirk Douglas and Melissa Leo at the Academy Awards.)
As per the IMDb, Sharif Jr. has only three films to his credit. The latest one, possibly to come out in 2015, is Jim Sheridan’s The Secret Scripture, starring Rooney Mara, Aidan Turner, Eric Bana, Theo James, Jack Reynor, and Oscar winner Vanessa Redgrave (Julia, 1977).
Note: This Omar Sharif article previously included information on the recently deceased producer Jerry Weintraub and his films (The Karate Kid, Ocean’s Eleven). That can now be found in a post dedicated to Weintraub. See link further below.
Omar Sharif quotes via the journeyman.tv interview.
Omar Sharif Che Guevara image: 20th Century Fox, via Culturalmente Incorrecto.
Omar Sharif Doctor Zhivago image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.