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R.I.P. ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and ‘Top Secret’s’ Omar Sharif

R.I.P. 'Lawrence of Arabia' and 'Top Secret's' Omar Sharif

Last Friday, the legendary Egyptian actor Omar Sharif passed away at the age of 83 after suffering a heart attack. Depending on whom you ask, Omar Sharif was known for quite a few different things, and not just his films. Yes, he was known for his career-making turns as Sherif Ali and Yuri Zhivago in David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago” respectively, as well as the gambler Nicky Arnstein in “Funny Girl” opposite Barbara Streisand, and even as Agent Cedric in the hilarious “Top Secret!” But he was also known for his dreamy eyes with which he projected a romantic gaze unlike any other actor of his generation, his rousing international spirit that convinced a whole host of Middle Easterners that it was possible to become a Hollywood star, and even as a renowned bridge player. Despite those who would like to reduce the entire man’s life to two roles, Omar Sharif was much more than that, and his influence extends far beyond the movies. He is counted and he will be remembered.

Ari Arikan, Slate

It goes without saying that the Middle East has always been a mess. It was a different sort of catastrophe in the Ottoman times, a whole other one in the period between the two World Wars, and then all the chaos in the region reached its apotheosis after World War II. Wars, coups, assassinations. The whole place was just a rancid example of everything wrong with the post-colonial order. And amid all of this, there was Omar Sharif. He was huge in Egypt, sure, but international stardom came with his legendary part in “Lawrence of Arabia.” And from then on, he became something else. It wasn’t just that all the girls wanted to be with him, and all the boys wanted to be him. To young people in the Middle East, Omar Sharif was an icon, an ideal: He was the promise of a better world. Just as the Animals defiantly sang “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” and it connected with fellow Northerners who couldn’t wait to get out of the North of England, the very existence of Omar Sharif had a similar effect on the disaffected youth of the Middle East. And there was a more classically romantic side to Sharif’s appeal, too: My mother used to tell me that, when Dr. Zhivago eventually opened in Turkey a few years after its original release, every single girl aged 15 to 20 fell in love with his eyes, which always looked tearful even though they never shed a single tear. The girls fell in love with the way Yuri Zhivago fell in love.

Justin Chang, Variety

There is a shot in “Doctor Zhivago” in which Omar Sharif’s face is almost entirely veiled in shadow, so that all we see are his eyes, focused on the woman who will soon become his lover. For all the visual sweep of David Lean’s magnificently mushy 1965 romance, it contains few images as telling or revealing as this one: Here were eyes for the audience to lose itself in, but also to study closely. The film historian and professor Constantine Santas summed it up in his appreciative 2011 study of Lean’s epics, when he wrote that Sharif’s Zhivago “is frequently described as ‘passive,’ his eyes reflecting the reality he sees in reaction shots; his eyes then become the mirror of reality we ourselves see.” It’s a conceit that could only work, of course, if your leading man had the eyes to do it justice. And Lean, the director who first introduced this Egyptian-born heartthrob to the world in “Lawrence of Arabia,” surely knew the power of those peepers. Consequently, Sharif’s Dr. Zhivago is a man of keen observation, precise actions and relatively sparse talk. He doesn’t need to say much, in part, because that liquid gaze — not passive but piercing, and alert and alive to the relentless forward march of history — tells us everything we need to know. Was it Sharif’s eyes that made him such a chameleon? At the very least, they helped make his versatility persuasive. While the actor’s complexion, accent, wardrobe and mustache could shift at will depending on the role, it was those twin pools of emotion that maintained a sense of continuity and kept us tethered to reality, or something like it. In a career that could sometimes seem as much about pageantry as performance, they served as the proverbial windows to his soul — reminders of a serene intelligence beneath that ever-malleable surface.

B.G. Henne, The A.V. Club

Gifted with an intense screen presence and chiseled good looks, Sharif’s fortunes quickly rose in his native Egypt, where he became a bona fide movie star. He was introduced to world audiences as Sherif Ali, the skeptical and charismatic guerrilla fighter in “Lawrence of Arabia,” after being recast from a smaller role. Despite not being Lean’s first choice for the role, Sharif’s scene-stealing performance won him two Golden Globes and an Academy Award nomination. Speaking with NPR’s Scott Simon in 2012, Sharif spoke of the bonding experience he shared with co-star Peter O’Toole. “The sky was wonderful at night, the stars were wonderful — we just sat there and talked and had some whiskey. We used to like having our whiskey at night. And we became very close friends,” he said. (Sharif and O’Toole would remain lifelong friends.) Lean would use Sharif again as the eponymous star of “Dr. Zhivago,” a sprawling romantic tragedy set against the back drop of the Russian Revolution. As Yuri Zhivago, Sharif proved that he could convey more with a single arresting look than many actors can express in an entire film.

Agnes Poirier, The Guardian

I had noticed his tall, elegant silhouette and his mane of curly white hair. Dressed in a caramel cashmere coat, and carrying old-fashioned trunks of a well-known French luxury brand, the man walking in front of me, about to get on the Eurostar bound for Paris, oozed bygone sophistication. I imagined him as a passenger on the Orient Express. As he climbed on to the train, I finally saw his profile. He turned and looked at me with a smile. My heart skipped a beat. It was Omar Sharif and we would be travelling in the same coach. I spent the journey thinking about what Sharif meant for millions of cinephiles such as me. I was in my late 20s, he was in his late 60s, but the fact that we were two generations apart and from two different worlds was beside the point: cinema transcends time and knows no frontiers. Having grown up in Paris, with more art-house cinemas per inhabitants than any other city in the world, I counted Sharif among my cinematic “close friends” and “knights in shining armor.” When David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” was re-released in France in 1989 in the restored 221-minute director’s cut, I went to see it every afternoon after school, eight days in a row. Peter O’Toole fascinated me, Anthony Quinn and Alec Guinness enthralled me, Anthony Quayle touched me, but Sharif completely disarmed me. Here was a man who seemed both unassuming and terribly manly, mesmerising and approachable. Sharif embodied this explosive melange of suaveness and passion, of indolence and fire.

Bilge Ebiri, Vulture

Indeed, he was a man slightly out of his times: His star presence recalled a classicism that Hollywood and the rest of the world was starting to shed right as Sharif came on the scene. (Lean, for his part, wished he had cast Sharif in more films – but of course, Lean himself only made two more films after “Zhivago.”) In his last couple of decades of life, he split his time between Cairo and a hotel in Paris. One wonders if, had he been just a few years younger, or healthier, he might have had more opportunities to re-emerge onto the international film scene. Even so, a few years ago, he gained acclaim once again for his role as a Turkish shopkeeper who befriends a Jewish boy in the drama “Monsieur Ibrahim.” It was a small, lovely drama, aided not just by the actor’s performance, but by our shared history with him. He was much older, yes, but here, again, was that noble manner – speaking to us of a half-imagined courtliness that the world had passed by.

Robert Berkvist, The New York Times

He was philosophical about the ups and downs of his career. “Look, I had it good and bad,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in 1995. “I did three films that are classics, which is very rare in itself, and they were all made within five years.” He attributed his change of film fortune to what he called “the cultural revolution” at the end of the 1960s. “There was a rise of young, talented directors,” he added, “but they were making films about their own societies. There was no more room for a foreigner, so suddenly there were no more parts.”

“Top Secret!” Director David Zucker, Entertainment Weekly

Q: His character is treated terribly in the course of the film.

A: Right. We squirted water in his face, and hit him with whipped cream, and an exploding cigar. Through the whole thing, he maintained that serious dignity, which made it all the funnier. He was a good sport through it all. He didn’t complain and he had some really uncomfortable sequences to get through. We had to put him in this kind of coffin-like contraption to create the illusion that he was encased in this iron block and he never complained. He wanted to get it right. He was always asking, “Was that okay?” We always assured him that it was cracking us up. We were trying not to crack up too loudly because we didn’t want to impinge on the soundtrack.

Dan Callahan, RogerEbert.com

Sharif kept appearing in movies, but he was most entertaining as a guest on talk shows, where he revealed himself the ideal smooth dinner companion. One of his best stories involved a time in the 1960s when a besotted female fan broke into his hotel room, pointed a gun at him and ordered him to disrobe and make love to her. Sharif handled this with admirable aplomb: “My dear lady, as you can see, I really cannot get into the proper spirit if you are pointing a gun at me.” He pointed down to his lower body. “But perhaps if you put the gun away…”

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR

[NPR’s Weekend Edition host Scott Simon] and Omar had a delightful interview about his role in the film “Lawrence of Arabia,” playing alongside Peter O’Toole. Sharif talked about being an unknown Egyptian actor thrust into stardom with that film and what it was like to live in the desert for a whole year. He talked about his first and only wife, how he’d converted to Islam to be with her. Sharif was born Christian. The two talked and laughed while I held the microphone to Sharif’s mouth — all the while staring at those eyes. When it was over, Sharif did not usher me out. Instead, he offered me a glass of Champagne, and we continued our conversation. He was kind, interested in me and gracious. I showed him my little wallet, and it amused him that he had in some way been my dream as a young girl. Sharif said he loved children and told me I should have brought my 6-year-old son along to the interview. He reminisced about his own childhood and said he went to a British boarding school in Cairo. He told me his mother had sent him there because she wanted him to lose weight.

Oliver Gettell, The L.A. Times

[“Lawrence of Arabia”] introduced him as Sherif Ali, the tribal leader with whom British intelligence officer T.E. Lawrence helped the Arabs break up the Ottoman Empire, with a now-famous shot in which he slowly comes into view through a haze of heat while riding on the back of a camel. “It’s arguably one of the great entrances in the history of film,” fellow actor Patrick Stewart told The Times on Friday. Stewart, who said he did not know Sharif socially but followed him closely as an actor and contemporary, added, “There was a great deal of dignity about him and his work. And I don’t mean an uptight, formal, rigid dignity. There was a charisma, one that wasn’t to do with dazzle and razzmatazz, but with an intelligent presence, a thoughtfulness and an empathy.” Sharif was “an actor’s actor,” said Jack Shaheen, an author who has written extensively about Arabs and Middle Easterners in cinema. “Not only was he the first Arab star in American cinema, but he played Russians, Jews, Hispanics. He was Che. He was Genghis Khan. He did it all. What I admired about him most of all was his willingness not to be typecast. He would play Arab villains or heroes, or any role. If he liked the role, he took it.”

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