Friday, July 10, 2015

R.I.P. Omar Sharif (1932-2015)

Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia
Egyptian actor Omar Sharif passed away today at the age of 83 after battling with Alzheimer's Disease, which he only publicly announced in May of this year. Born in Alexandria, Egypt on April 10, 1932, the actor was born to parents who weren't necessarily wealthy, but he admitted that they made enough money. While his heritage is prominent, he was capable of playing roles of various ethnicity thanks to his fluency in French, Greek, Italian, Spanish, and Arabic. While he has an impressive and storied career, his career-defining work may be that of playing Sherif Ali in the Best Picture winner from director David Lean called Lawrence of Arabia. Much like his co-star Peter O'Toole, he brought charisma and energy to the epic and created some of the most iconic characters to travel the desert in film history. It was also only the beginning of a big career.

Sharif was born to two merchants. His surname meant "noble" in Arabic. He moved to England in 1965 after having started a career in film. His debut came with the film Devil of the Desert in 1954. While he had been known to be fluent in several languages, his English debut came in 1962 with Lawrence of Arabia. It was a film that earned him universal acclaim and garnered him his only Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He would also receive two Golden Globe nominations for the film, including one win for Best New Star of the Year. 

It was the launching pad for a career that would see him team up with Lean again for the film Doctor Zhivago. He would also work with directors such as Blake Edwards (The Pink Panther Strikes Again) and actors like Barbara Streisand (Funny Girl). He would continue to work throughout his career, appearing in roles ranging from comedy (Top Secret!) to modern dramas (Hidalgo). While his name isn't as immediately recognizable as the co-stars of his breakout film, he holds a distinct honor of being one of the most acclaimed Egyptian actors of his generation.

Even if he is remembered for one role, Lawrence of Arabia isn't a bad one to have on your resume. Even his intro as he crosses the desert to find Peter O'Toole stranded has become iconic. As far as first major scenes go, he earns a place among the best. With aggression and power, he earns his screen time alongside his great British co-star. Of course, the film as a whole is an astounding, impressive work from cinematography to directing to editing. Even then, it would be hard to think of the movie without Sharif. Even before he speaks, he has become as mysterious as his characters' ethnicity. By the time we depart, he's too unforgettable.

While he was an actor of some note, he also had a few other hobbies. He was a contract bridge player who ranked among the Top 50 in the world. He wrote a column about it for the Chicago Tribune. In 1992, he lent his name to a MS-DOS game called Omar Sharif on Bridge, which is still sold on Windows platforms. He eventually quit when he felt like his interests became more of a chore than a hobby. Along with frequenting casinos in France, he was an avid player who enjoyed to gamble. He also liked horse racing and had animals that won in major competitions such as Prix-Gontaut-Biron and Prix du Muguet. Like his interest in bridge, he wrote occasional columns about it for a French horse racing magazine.

Along with his family, he has spent most of his later years in Cairo. At the time of death, his last film was Rock the Casbah. It was also said by his son Tarek El-Sharif that Omar became easily confused in his older years, specifically mixing up details about his biggest films - specifically Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. He would also forget where they were filmed. Among his legacy is the fact that his son, Omar Sharif Jr., is also an actor. While his filmography isn't quite yet as noteworthy, he did make an appearance at the Academy Awards in 2011 as a presenter.

There's a lot to remember about Sharif's career. Whether it is his linguistic skills or his ability to enjoy various sports, he was a man who lived adventurously. As an Egyptian actor, his best roles weren't relegated to him being a foreigner, but instead a richer and more confident archetype. In Lawrence of Arabia, it is his charisma that we remember more than his devious deeds. Even if he doesn't have as many immediately recognizable films as that one, he still earns a special place among the greats for making a role so memorable without making it lazy. He was an actor that made a positive change on the medium, and that is just the tipping point of his brilliance.

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