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DUBAI: In the history of Arab cinema, no star has shone more brightly than Omar Sharif. The legendary Egyptian actor, who became Arab cinema’s first major crossover star after 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia catapulted him to international fame, had talent so abundant and personality so big that his presence has grown only in the public consciousness since his death in 2015. as the film world continues to search for his true successor.

Current Egyptian superstar Asser Yassin, one of the few actors to be dubbed the “next Omar Sharif,” knows that searching is futile.

“I was always compared to him, even told that I would be his successor. I would always reply, ‘There will only be one Omar Sharif,’” Yassin tells Arab News.

Born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1932 as Michael Yusef Dimitri Chaloub, Sharif – who took that name when he began his film career – grew up in a multilingual family, his parents having moved from Zahle, Lebanon decades before his birth his, and he had an early aptitude for languages, learning not only his mother’s Arabic, English and French, but also Italian and Spanish.

Egyptian actor Omar Sharif (left) with English director David Lean (1908 – 1991) on the set of Lawrence Of Arabia, 1962. (Getty)

‘Sharif’ means noble, and it’s easy to see why he got that name. His mother Claire Saada was one of the country’s most popular socialites, regularly hosting Egypt’s King Farouk during 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 in front of the camera has proven to be mythic. Sharif studied mathematics and physics at Cairo University before turning to film, and while reports often include noting that he studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, there is no record of the school itself that he ever attended.

According to renowned Egyptian director and newly appointed director of the Cairo International Film Festival, Amir Ramses, the real story involved a bit more luck and a meeting with Egypt’s most famous director, Youssef Chahine.

“He was a really handsome young man who probably never dreamed of working in the cinema, who was noticed by a young and talented director, who made him a star within several films (alongside) the most prestigious of Egypt,” says Ramses. we.

Omar Sharif and Faten Hamama in a scene from the film ‘Siraa Fil-Wadi’, 1954. (Getty)

Chahine, only a few years into his filmmaking career, cast Sharif in two films in 1954 opposite the country’s biggest star at the time, Faten Hamama, who had been a big box-office draw for over a decade.

The films, particularly The Blazing Sun, proved to be a huge success and led to Sharif teaming up with Chahine again and again throughout the 1950s, and he soon became a star in his own right. Oh, and marrying Hamamah.

“He proved to be a really charismatic and talented actor, which was really kind of a miracle,” says Ramses. “Most people have to work for years from the time they know they want to make movies for a living before they become a success, but for him it was a stroke of luck that led him to discover his talent. I think that’s part of its charm.”

Luck also played its part in his rise to international fame. In 1962, English director David Lean was preparing 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.

Asser Yassin and Omar Sharif. (Provided by Asser Yassin)

Sharif, who, thanks to his childhood, spoke English well, was flown to the desert to meet the director.

“As we came to the ground, we could see (Lean) sitting alone,” Sharif recounted years later. “We landed next to him, but he didn’t move a step. When I got off the plane, he didn’t say ‘Hello’ to me. He just walked around me to look at my profile. Finally, he said, ‘That is very good, Omar. Let’s go to the makeup tent.’”

Sharif’s role, a fictional envoy named Sherif Ali, though the most physically demanding of his career (“He hated weak actors. I was one of the only actors he actually liked in his entire life,” the actor later said), was an instant hit, earning him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor and winning him two Golden Globes (for the same role — it was the 60s and it’s the Globes ), and landed him a long-term deal with Columbia Pictures. And so Sharif spent most of his later decades in Hollywood and Europe.

While he became an instant hit, Sharif was acutely aware of being an Arab in an underrepresented environment, causing him to tread lightly behind the scenes in those early years and accept less money than he felt he deserved.

American actress and singer Barbra Streisand with co-star Omar Sharif on the set of ‘Funny Lady’, 1975. (Getty)

“I had to be very careful. For example, Columbia Pictures signed me to a five-year contract when I had done ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, but they didn’t pay me anything,” Sharif said later.

However, his gamble paid off. Sharif went from sidekick to lead, starring in a number of the decade’s most popular films, including Lean’s 1965 epic Doctor Zhivago and the ever-popular romantic comedy Funny Girl opposite Barbara Streisand her film debut in 1968.

From that point, however, Sharif’s remarkable rise diminished. As the roles continued to roll in, Sharif seemed to lose his earlier ability to pick good projects. Or maybe he stopped trying so hard to do so.

“I went 25 years without making a good film,” he said frankly years later. “I had to work all the time to support my family and myself and all my expensive tastes. It reached the stage where my own grandchildren were making fun of my films. I decided it was time to stop, have some dignity and wait for something I felt passionate about.”

Towards the end of his life, it was once again the Arab world in which he often found his strongest inspiration, with acclaimed films such as The Traveler, which garnered Sharif a standing ovation at the 2009 Venice International Film Festival. .

Famous Egyptian actor Amr Waked – Sharif’s co-star in the film – vividly remembers their trip to Venice, he tells Arab News.

Omar Sharif, Julie Christie in ‘Doctor Zhivago’. Getty

“When we were leaving, we were on the same flight together to Paris. I can tell you, there wasn’t a single person in either airport who didn’t stand in respect for Omar Sharif as he walked by,” Waked says.

Lebanese director Daizy Gedeon, who directed Sharif in her 1996 film “Lebanon… Imprisoned Brilliance” and continued a friendship with him for years afterward, was always in awe of not only Sharif’s talent in front of the camera, but from his fantastic charisma to everyday life – the sign of a true star.

“He loved acting and found a way to express the identity of an Arab in a way that people had never really seen,” says Gedeon. “When we met over the years around the world, every head in the room turned and he caught every woman’s attention because, even though he was getting older, he still looked incredibly handsome. His presence was like no other.”

Although Sharif died in 2015 at the age of 83, his legacy is such that he remains a huge presence in the world of cinema, both regionally and internationally.

“He’s one of those people who didn’t die, actually. His work still lives with us. We will all die before his work,” says Waked. “There was something inside him that just glowed.”

There will only be one Omar Sharif. But we were lucky to get even one.

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