On Friday afternoon I was listening to the Steve Wright show on BBC Radio 2 like all thirty-year olds do when the newsreader suddenly announced breaking news; ‘Oh no! This can’t be good’ I thought. I was right; Omar Sharif, the star of two of the biggest movies of all time Dr Zhivago (1965; AFI 1998 #39) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962; 1998 #5, 2007 #7) which are both featured on the American Film Institute’s greatest films of all-time list had passed away from a heart attack aged eighty-three.
And like the social media sheep I am I immediately checked Twitter to see if he was trending and what other people had to say about the tragic news. Most tweeters were complementary of the legendary actor, but what struck me was a Tweet from a news agency – it stated the star who only earlier in the year confessed he had been suffering from dementia had been so far into the illness that he could not remember his career highlights.
Iconic : Peter O Toole and Omar Sharif
The first memory I had of him on screen was when he killed a man in the middle of a desert for drinking out of his well without permission (he was a badass!) in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. How could a man with such presence have been in such a hopeless state fifty years later? That’s probably the most depressing thing about doing the AFI challenge of watching all the movies featured on the list is that most of the stars I’ve come to admire in these classics have either passed on or now a shadow of their former self. What’s worse is most of my colleagues didn’t know who he was or how important he was to the film industry when I expressed my sadness when downing a pint of soda water later in the day.
Sherif Ali makes an unforgettable entrance in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’
Omar Sharif was not only an exceptional and charismatic actor; he was a ground-breaker who broke down racial stereotypes in Hollywood. He was the first and arguably the only non- white or black leading man and a heart-throb. Someone who I could identify with as he was the closest there was to a South Asian making it as the big box office draw in Hollywood – something rare today, but unheard of in the 1960s.
Today most of the South Asian and Middle-Eastern actors in TV and film play support roles and usually likable, but typically dippy and unlucky with the opposite sex. Take Raj from the ‘Big Bang Theory’ (2007 – to date) – on paper he seems like the biggest catch of the lot – smart, sensitive and from a wealthy family – yet for the first few series the writers of the show decided he was too intimidated by the opposite sex that he wouldn’t be able to talk to a woman unless he was drunk and it took him forever to find a girlfriend – even Sheldon found love before him! This man comes from the land of action heroes like Rishi Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan who never shied away from a woman, yet these characters are never portrayed in Western movies. Look at Dev Patel – he may have got the girl in the end of ‘Slumdog Millionaire (2009)’ but ladies weren’t exactly getting hot and bothered for a skinny boy who literately came from the gutter. In fact director Danny Boyle deliberately did not want to hire a Bollywood hunk for the movie because he felt neither would fit in the role – he may have a point but, it seems Asian men in Western movies either play a bumbling character with zero sex appeal or a terrorist.
Sharif: Timeless heartthrob – ‘Little Britain’
But David Lean, the director of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and ‘Dr Zhivago’ saw something in Sharif which I wish directors today had the balls to see with other ethnic minority actors – and casted him in pivot roles for two of his most ambitious projects (although frustratingly other Caucasian actors were considered for the role of Arab Sherif Ali before Sharif in Lawrence). In ‘Dr Zhivago’ Sharif plays the title character who finds himself in a love triangle between Julie Christie and Rita Tushingham during Soviet ruling of Russia at the beginning of the Twentieth-Century. Although the movie received mixed reviews at the time of release for being too long and not focusing enough on historical significance of the Russian Revolution, like fine wine the movie has aged well over the years and people have come to appreciate the convincing romantic magnetism between Sharif and Christie. This epic definitely gave Sharif that superstar stud status – he once boasted to receive over twenty-thousand marriage proposals in a month. But more importantly the movie proved that a man of brown skin could carry a Hollywood funded movie and have mass appeal. For this magnetic and intense love story set against a beautiful backdrop I give it 4 out of 5.
Love affair: Omar Sharif & Julie Christie
Like ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939: AFI 1998 #6, 2007 #8) and ‘Ben Hur’ (1959: AFI 1998 #72, 2007 #100) everyone has at least heard of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and understands its cultural significance. Peter O’Toole was robbed of a Best Actor for his portrayal of flamboyant T.E. Lawrence, a British Army lieutenant sent to Arabia to unite the British forces and Arabs against the Turks during the First World War. Despite being an epic adventure the movie subtlety tackles the moral dilemmas of fighting in combat as well the emotional effect killing has on the main character. Although the movie feels at times too long it wouldn’t been classified as an epic if it didn’t. It is perfectly told, acted and directed- I also give the movie 4 out of 5.
Sharif speaks about his friendship with Peter O’ Toole
Even if Omar Sharif couldn’t recall the greatness of his two breakout roles in his final days – movie goers will fondly remember his contribution to cinema for years to come.
Sharif wins Golden Globe for his starring role in ‘Doctor Zhivago’