The best of Omar Sharif

"They chose me (for the role of Sherif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia) because I spoke English, had black hair, black eyes and a moustache. It was all luck."

Those were the words of Egyptian actor Omar Sharif as he described his casting for what went on to become his iconic debut in Hollywood. Born Michel Demitri Chalhoub in 1932, the Sherif Ali of David Lean’s classic continued to give hits in the '60s and '70s but eventually settled for a life of a world-class bridge player rather than grow old in Tinseltown.

But it is his cinematic gems that people like to remember him by, so we bring to you a list of the five most unforgettable roles of his career:

1. Sherif Ali, Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Omar Sharif’s debut in Hollywood is exactly how it was filmed by director David Lean in Lawrence of Arabia – an arresting entry. Peter O’ Toole, who played the titular role, asked his co-star Zia Mohyeddin (who played a bedouin), "Who is he?" and with a deafening shot from his rifle while riding a galloping camel in the desert, Omar Sharif entered the frame as the dark-eyed Sherif Ali. His acting was so flawless that one couldn't tell it was his first Hollywood film; he matched the acting talents of Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn and O’ Toole, who was also making his debut. When asked about Lawrence of Arabia, Sharif was quoted as saying: "I think it is a great film, but I am not very good in it. I also never thought anyone would go to see the film – three hours and 40 minutes of desert, and no girls!” Modesty always wins.

2. Title role, Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Director David Lean cast him in another of his epic productions – this time in the title role of Doctor Yuri Andreyevich Zhivago. In this tale about a doctor-poet who survives on his love for his beloved Lara (Julie Christie) while enduring the effects of the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution, Omar Sharif was nothing short of brilliant. Based on the novel by Boris Pasternak, the actor held his ground against an ensemble cast and is believed to have gone through a rigorous makeup regime that included skin waxing and hair straightening. He also changed his accent to look more Russian than Arabic. It was after the film was released that Omar Sharif came out with his complaint about lack of support from fans and critics. But hey, the film is now regarded as one of the best films ever made!

3. Title role, Genghis Khan (1965)

It was always going to be a challenge for an Egyptian actor to play Genghis Khan, the Mongol emperor who ruthlessly destroyed whatever came in the way of his world domination in the 13th century. However, it was challenges like these that brought out the best in Omar Sharif and he convincingly portrayed the shy Temujin who as a Mongol boy doesn’t have ambitions but later transforms into the fearless leader. Directed by Henry Levin, being part of the ensemble cast was never a problem for Omar who had ‘been there, done that’ in his initial films. Yes, Genghis Khan is not known as one of his finest films as it was overshadowed by a far better Doctor Zhivago six months later, but what is surprising is the fact that both movies featuring Omar in different avatars were released within the span of six months!

4. Major Grau, Night of the Generals (1967)

Omar Sharif united with his Lawrence of Arabia co-star Peter O' Toole and music composer Maurice Jarre to deliver a chilling performance in Anatole Litvak's The Night of the Generals. Based on the novel of the same name by Hans Hellmut Kirst, Omar played Major Grau who later gets promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in the German military intelligence. He was not only convincing as a German officer but also gave tough competition to Peter O' Toole in this murder-mystery set during World War II. Not even the presence of seasoned performers Tom Courtenay, Donald Pleasance and Christopher Plummer was able to take the spotlight away from the Egyptian heartthrob.

5. John Colorado, Mackenna’s Gold (1969)

Many might not agree with the inclusion of Mackenna’s Gold in this esteemed list but it is one of the most challenging roles Omar Sharif had to play during his career. Pitted against Behold A Pale Horse co-star Gregory Peck, Telly Savalas, Eli Wallach and Lee J. Cobb, Omar played the Mexican outlaw John Colorado, who was a villain whom you would love to hate every moment he was on screen. In his search for gold, Colorado is ruthless as he kills in this J. Lee Thompson-directed flick and manipulates the situation in his favour, all the while holding Mackenna (Peck) and others hostage. --Dawn

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