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DUBAI: In the history of Arab cinema, no star has shone more than Omar Sharif. The legendary Egyptian actor, who became Arab cinema’s first major star after 1962’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ catapulted him to international fame, had such copious talent and such a big personality that his presence didn’t has only grown in the public consciousness since his death in 2015, as the movie world continues to search for his true successor.
Current Egyptian superstar Asser Yassin, one of the few actors to have been dubbed “The Next Omar Sharif”, knows the search is futile.
“I was always compared to him and even told that I would be his successor. I always answered: ‘There will be only one Omar Sharif,'” Yassin told Arab News.
Born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1932 as Michael Yusef Dimitri Chaloub, Sharif – who took that name when he began his career as a filmmaker – was raised in a multilingual family, his parents having moved from Zahlé, in Lebanon, decades before he was born, and he had an early affinity for languages, learning not only Arabic, English and French from his mother, but also Italian and Spanish.
“Sharif” means noble, and it’s easy to see why he took that name. His mother Claire Saada was one of the country’s most renowned socialites, regularly hosting King Farouk of Egypt throughout Sharif’s youth, after his family moved to Cairo when he was four.
Some of the lore of how the great Sharif found his way on camera turned out to be a myth. Sharif studied maths and physics at Cairo University before getting into acting, and although reports often include the note that he studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, the school itself has no record of his participation.
According to renowned Egyptian filmmaker and new director of the Cairo International Film Festival, Amir Ramses, the real story involved a bit more luck and an encounter with Egypt’s most acclaimed filmmaker, Youssef Chahine.
“He was a very handsome young man who probably hadn’t dreamed of working in the cinema, who got noticed by a young and talented director, who made him a star in a few films (alongside) the most prestigious actress in Egypt,” says Ramses. we.
Chahine, himself just a few years into his film career, cast Sharif in two films in 1954, opposite the country’s biggest star at the time, Faten Hamama, who had been a major box office lure. -office for more than a decade.
The films, especially “The Blazing Sun”, proved to be huge hits and led to Sharif teaming up with Chahine again and again throughout the 1950s, and quickly becoming a star himself. Oh, and marry Hamamah.
“He turned out to be a really charismatic and talented actor, which was really miraculous,” says Ramses. “Most have to work for years from when they know they want to make movies for a living before they become successful, but for him it was a stroke of luck that led him to discover his talent. I guess that’s part of his charm.
Luck also played its part in his rise to international fame. In 1962, English director David Lean was about to tell the story of Lawrence of Arabia, and asked his casting directors to bring in Arab actors to give his film an air of authenticity.
Sharif, who thanks to his childhood spoke good English, was taken on a plane to the desert to meet the director.
“As we were coming ashore, we could see (Lean) sitting by himself,” Sharif recounted years later. “We landed right next to him, but he didn’t move a step. When I got off the plane, he didn’t say ‘Hello’. He just walked around to see my profile. Finally, he said, “It’s very good, Omar. Let’s go to the makeup tent. “
The role of Sharif, a fictional emissary named Sherif Ali, though the most physically demanding of his career (“Lean hated actors. I was one of the only actors he really liked, in his entire life,” was said the actor later), was an instant hit. , which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor and won him two Golden Globes (for the same role – it was the 60s, and it’s the Globes), as well as a contract at long term with Columbia Pictures. And so Sharif spent the majority of his subsequent decades in Hollywood and Europe.
While he immediately became recognizable, Sharif was keenly aware of being an Arab in an underrepresented environment, which led to him treading lightly behind the scenes in those early years and accepting less money. than he thought he deserved.
“I had to be very careful. For example, Columbia Pictures signed me to a five-year contract when I made ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, but they didn’t pay me anything,” Sharif later said.
His bet, however, paid off. Sharif went from sidekick to leading man, starring in many of the most popular films of the decade, including Lean’s 1965 epic “Doctor Zhivago” and the ever-popular romantic comedy “Funny Girl,” alongside Barbara Streisand in her first film role, in 1968.
From then on, however, Sharif’s remarkable rise dwindled. As the roles kept pouring in, Sharif seemed to be losing his earlier knack for picking good projects. Or maybe he’s stopped trying so hard to do it.
“I went 25 years without making a good movie,” he said candidly years later. “I had to work all the time to support myself and my family, along with all my expensive tastes. It got to the stage where my own grandchildren were making fun of my films. I decided it was time to stop, keep some dignity and wait for something I’m passionate about.
Towards the end of his life, it was again the Arab world from which he often drew his strongest inspiration, with acclaimed films such as “The Traveller”, which earned him standing ovations at the International Film Festival of Venice in 2009.
Famous Egyptian actor Amr Waked – Sharif’s co-star in the film – remembers their trip to Venice vividly, he told Arab News.
“When we were leaving, we were on the same flight together to Paris. I can tell you that there was not a single person at either airport who did not respect Omar Sharif during its passage,” says Waked.
Lebanese filmmaker Daizy Gedeon, who directed Sharif in her film “Lebanon… Imprisoned Splendor” in 1996 and continued a friendship with him for years thereafter, has always been amazed not only by Sharif’s talent in front of the camera, but also by his fantastic charisma in everyday life too — the mark of a true star.
“He loved acting and he found a way to express an Arab’s identity in a way that people had never really seen,” Gedeon explains. “When we met over the years across the world, every head in the room turned and he caught the attention of every woman, because even as he got older he was still incredibly handsome. to no other.
Even though Sharif passed away in 2015 at the age of 83, his legacy is such that he remains a major presence in the film world, both regionally and internationally.
“He is one of those people who is not dead, in fact. His work still lives with us. We will all die before his work,” says Waked. “There was something about him that shone.”
There will be only one Omar Sharif. But we were lucky to have only one.