Director David Lean reportedly had a hard time casting the role of Sherif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia (1962): Just before the shooting started, no suitable actor had yet been found for the role. When the choice finally fell on a French actor, Lean remarked on the first day of shooting: “Peter O’Toole has blue eyes. The French actor has green eyes. That’s not a contrast. I need a contrast. Send me photos of Arab actors who speak English. Lean was given five or six photos and his choice fell on Omar Sharif,” his son Tarek Sharif later explained.
Since childhood, Omar Sharif was interested in Hollywood cinema: he went to an English school in Alexandria, Egypt, and then worked in his father’s timber business.
After working as an actor in Egypt for a while – the Egyptian director Youssef Chahine gave him his first roles – his international breakthrough followed with Lawrence of Arabia: In his memoirs, Sharif vividly describes how he entered the cinema hall at the premiere of the film in Hollywood as an unknown actor and left again a few hours later as a celebrated world star. Originally, Sharif was not supposed to attend the Hollywood premiere – but Peter O’Toole put pressure on the producers – he said that he would only appear if Sharif was also invited.
Sharif’s “guardian angel”
After Lawrence of Arabia, Omar Sharif was in danger of being reduced to the role of an Arab: David Lean warned him of this and advised him to absolutely refuse any films in which he was to play an Arab for a high salary. In the meantime, when Sharif did not receive any suitable role offers, David Lean lent him money – Lean wanted to prevent Sharif from being sold out at all costs.
This circumstance saved Sharif from being typecast: In the years to come, he embodied many roles that were considered “exotic” and difficult to cast with other established Hollywood actors. This was not least to Lean’s credit, which is why Sharif referred to David Lean as his “guardian angel” in his memoirs.
Two years after the premiere of Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean was able to offer his friend Sharif a role that finally saved him from being pinned down to one type of role: Lean, who had made Sharif a world star with his role in Lawrence of Arabia, wanted to cast Omar Sharif in the role of Doctor Zhivago in the 1965 film of the same name.
There was no role Omar Sharif could not play
When David Lean offered Sharif the role of Doctor Zhivago, the actor was initially horrified. Sharif is reported to have said, “Zhivago was a Russian doctor. I am an Egyptian actor…” David Lean interrupted him and replied, “Exactly. You’re an actor.”
Omar Sharif was an actor in the purest sense of the word: when he embodied a character on screen, his own origins did not matter. Sharif did not put himself in the foreground of the action on the film set, but the character he embodied.
In the major European production Genghis Khan (1965), Omar Sharif played the role of the title character Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire: by now it was almost a certainty that Omar Sharif would be hired for such exotic roles, which were considered difficult to cast. In the course of his career, Omar Sharif did not always rely on getting an engagement in the film metropolis of Hollywood: From the end of the sixties, Omar Sharif mainly took part in European productions. In 1971, for example, he played alongside Jean-Paul Belmondo in the French production The Burglars [Le Casse].
Omar Sharif as a German Wehrmacht officer? Such a thing seemed unthinkable at first. But Omar Sharif was an actor: for a true actor, no role is unthinkable.
So it was that in 1966 Omar Sharif played a German Wehrmacht officer alongside Peter O’Toole in The Night of the Generals. There was probably no role that Omar Sharif could not play.
A citizen of the world
In the French-British historical film Mayerling (1968), Omar Sharif played the role of the Austrian Crown Prince Rudolf. Ava Gardner played the role of Empress Elisabeth in the film. The film revolves around the Mayerling tragedy that occurred in 1889.
First he played a German officer, then the founder of the Mongolian Empire and now a member of the Austrian high nobility: Omar Sharif’s repertoire of roles seemed almost unlimited.
In 1969, Omar Sharif played the leader of the rebel army of the Cuban Revolution Che Guevara in the film Che!: Che originally came from an Argentinian family.
Whether the characters came from South America, East Asia, Europe or Russia, Omar Sharif embodied them all. Sharif’s credible portrayals of different ethnicities had not least to do with the fact that Sharif saw himself as a citizen of the world and that he had considered all the hotels in the world as his home since the mid-sixties: Since he travelled nine months a year for his work as an actor anyway, he saw no point in settling permanently in one place. When he died in 2015, his belongings were said to have fit into two suitcases – that’s all he needed. His goal was not to accumulate belongings, but to be at home all over the world through his work.
From the mid-1970s, Omar Sharif’s career peak was over: Although he still appeared in a couple of films, hardly any of them were as significant as his earlier work as an actor.
Throughout his life, Omar Sharif remained attached to his hometown of Alexandria: In his memoirs, he stated that if one spends one’s childhood in Alexandria, one becomes a different person than if one grows up in the Bronx. Sharif was happy to come from a city on where the pharaohs had already walked the soil.
At the end of his career, Omar Sharif played the title role of Monsieur Ibrahim in the literary adaptation Monsieur Ibrahim [Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran, 2003]: the role was a late comeback for Sharif. Sharif’s performance was very well received by critics. Some critics even went so far as to say that the multi-layered role of Monsieur Ibrahim was just waiting for Omar Sharif – conversely, Sharif was looking for an opportunity to make a comeback.
Sharif was without question one of the most exotic actors of his generation. When the end of classical Hollywood cinema became apparent at the end of the sixties, Omar Sharif’s career was also affected by this upheaval. But Sharif remains a timeless actor to this day, who thrills audiences with his multi-layered roles. Even his first Hollywood role in Lawrence of Arabia was multi-layered: at the beginning of the film, Sharif’s character Sherif Ali murders a member of another Arab tribe for drinking from his well. By the end of the film, Sherif Ali is an ardent supporter of Lawrence’s vision to unite the Arabs – this change of heart is very much in line with Omar Sharif’s own philosophy of life.
Main sources: Sharif, Omar: The Eternal Male, 1977 Doubleday & the documentary Omar Sharif: From the Life of a Nomad
Cover picture: © Simon von Ludwig