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Remembering Omar Sharif, A Star In Two Skies

Omar Sharif in one of his signature roles, the revolutionary poet Doctor Zhivago in the film of the same name.

Legendary Egyptian actor Omar Sharif died today in Cairo, according to his agent. He was 83.

Sharif hit it big starring in 1960s epic dramas such as Doctor Zhivago, and the movie that introduced him to world audiences: Lawrence of Arabia.

In that film, he first appears on the back of a camel, dressed as a Bedouin in headscarf and robes, brandishing a rifle as he rides toward a well where Peter O'Toole's Lawrence and his guide are drinking. He drops the guide with one shot.

As Sharif emerges from the desert, you see an actor who looks nothing like the movie stars audiences were used to, nothing like O'Toole's blond, blue-eyed good looks. Sharif is handsome, with a square face, dark, moody eyes, the signature mustache — and, the moment he opens his mouth, that accent.

"The scene at the well is a clip, whenever they show the Academy Awards, it's used continuously," says film scholar Jack Shaheen. The brutal scene is iconic, he adds, but it doesn't do justice to Sharif's performance. "He's really sort of like the nonviolent second protagonist of the film. He's articulate, he's sensitive, he's bright, he shows compassion for other people." And you can see how his relationship to the Englishman becomes much richer over the course of the movie.

"He was selected by David Lean not to portray the stereotypical Arab — the Arab sheik, the Arab terrorist, the Arab buffoon — rather, in Lawrence of Arabia you have a bona fide Arab freedom fighter," Shaheen continues. In 1962, not long after Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser set off an international crisis by nationalizing the Suez Canal, an Egyptian actor might not have been a popular choice. "And yet he took, I think, audiences by storm."

While to Hollywood audiences it might have seemed that Sharif appeared out of nowhere, he had actually done more than 20 black-and-white dramas in Cairo, the film capital of the Arab world. And even in his Arabic films, there's a clue he was going for international appeal: his billing. "Omar Sharif" was not the name given to him by his well-to-do, Catholic parents.

"My name was Michel," he told NPR in 2012. Michel Shalhoub, to be exact. In his memoir, he wrote about wanting an Arab-sounding name that was easy to pronounce in different languages — essential to a man who spoke not just Arabic but also French and English. "I went to the school where the priests were French. And then after, when I was 9 or 8 years old, I went to an English school — thank God. And there was a theater there. And that's how I started to become an actor."

Egyptian director Asaad Kelada says this multicultural preparation meant Sharif "was able to travel from nationality to nationality with conviction in the roles that he played. And so he was really the go-to person for any role that was of an exotic or different nature at that time."

For his next big film after Lawrence of Arabia, Sharif transformed himself from an Arab freedom fighter to a Russian revolutionary poet in Doctor Zhivago. For three hours, Sharif carries this film — he treats patients and navigates politics, dotes on his wife and dreams with his mistress.

Jack Shaheen says that over the course of Sharif's decades-long career, the range of his roles only expanded. "Well, he played Che Guevara. He played a German officer, and a Turkish Muslim, and the Jew Nicky Arnstein," opposite Barbra Streisand in 1968's Funny Girl. She plays comedienne and radio star Fanny Brice; he's her love interest — a dark and handsome gambler.

Though in some ways it may have been a stretch for him, the role of Nicky Arnstein had some echoes of Sharif's real life. That's because outside of acting, playing cards was his other love. He wrote a slew of books — including a memoir titled Omar Sharif's Life in Bridge — and even made instructional videos. So during the poker scenes in Funny Girl, it can feel like a glimpse of Sharif doing both things he loved at once.

Delightful though it was, Funny Girl caused some political ripples when it came out in 1968. Here was an Egyptian actor singing duets and kissing a Jewish woman not long after the Six Day War between Israel and Arab nations. Asaad Kelada says the movie caused Sharif a lot of trouble back home in Egypt. "But as an artist, he played that role of Nicky Arnstein and was able to make it accessible and believable to audiences worldwide."

Sharif will be remembered for being the first to make that remarkable leap — from Cairo to Hollywood, and on to a place in history as one of the most famous movie stars of his time.

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