Living in todays social media obsessed and tabloid fuelled society, often we forget being a star used to mean more than having a rugged beard and blue eyes (Bradley Cooper) or Magic Mike abs (Channing Tatum).
Unfortunately, we live in a modern climate where divisive tactics keep underdogs down as most studios hail the white movie star. We finally see a rise in black driven stories and characters but is it enough to truly change how the major studios cast roles?
Movies with diverse casts (Crazy Rich Asians, Black Panther, Get Out, and Us etc.) are selling tickets to movies globally, but there is still a lack of true diversity within how the screening system works. We will be taking time exploring some stars of yesteryear that made a splash being different in a time when being different wasn’t as widely accepted.
A prime example of this is the late, great, Omar Sharif!!!
I want to live every moment totally intensely.
Here’s the back story on Omar Sharif, who went from a supporting character and evolved into being a icon in his own right. Born Michel Dimitri Chalhoub in 1932, this Egyptian actor of Lebanese origin began his career in his native country in the 1950s appearing in both English and American productions over the course of his career, landing large parts in such pictures as Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Funny Girl (1968).
His break through to the mainstream was 1962. David Lean casting a lesser known and foreign actor in such a big budget film as Lawrence of Arabia was considered a risky move as the supporting role was ‘one of the most demanding supporting roles in Hollywood’.
This came off as a ‘authentic move’ for the studio, seeing how his ambiguous ethnicity allowed him to lean into playing many backgrounds it couldn’t be better casting. Sharif spoke English, French, Italian, Greek, Spanish and even Arabic. Admitting this himself, Sharif noted he could ‘play the role of a foreigner without anyone knowing exactly where I came from’.
Landing such a high profile supporting role came with it’s own hangups. Omar had to sign a seven-film contract with Columbia.
Not only did this worked out in Sharifs favour as he was received Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, and a Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe nomination; he also shared a Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year proving he was a box office hit and critical sensation, as well as being a part of one of cinema’s most iconic entrances of a character.
While filming the wildly culturally inappropriate Genghis Khan, Sharif heard about a upcoming project of Doctor Zhivago, an adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s 1957 novel, which was a landmark in his career.
Omar was a fan of the novel and pitched himself for one of the supporting roles, but in a strange twist of fate was casted as the lead, Yuri Zhivago, a poet and physician.
Like his adopted surname, meaning ‘noble’, it had been remarked that Sharif’s eyes reflected reality, which then became the ‘mirror of reality we ourselves see’.
Undeniably handsome with his dark features he had qualities of the ideal leading man, but also a certain exotic quality which made him sought after for a string of roles throughout his rise to stardom and icon status.
Our readers may know we have a love for a rebel; his looks alone made him suited to pull off an array of high end ornate costumes but in the end always sustained a dark bad-boy image. It is even alleged that he smoked 100 cigarettes a day!
I don’t know what sex appeal is.
Another stand out role for Sharif was his portrayal of Nicky Arnstein in Funny Girl, along side Barbara Streisand in her first film role. But in true bad boy style, this decision to take part in this production angered the Egyptian Government as Streisand was Jewish . The country condemned the film.
It also was ‘immediately banned’ in numerous Arab nations. Streisand herself joked “You think Cairo was upset? You should’ve seen the letter I got from my Aunt Rose”. Maybe the heightened social tensions added to the chemistry between the two actors as they became romantically involved during filming.
Sharif admitted later that he did not find Streisand attractive at first, but her appeal soon overwhelmed him: “About a week from the moment I met her”, he recalled, “I was madly in love with her. I thought she was the most gorgeous girl I’d ever seen in my life…I found her physically beautiful, and I started lusting after this woman.”.
As the years went on Sharif staked his claim in an otherwise white washed leading man landscape of the industry. As time would go on, his career veered into television in the 1970s, and even had his own clothing line!!!
This icon is definitely worth the mentioning on The Eye of Faith, as he was a pioneer in the industry at a time when segregation and racial discrimination was very real, and just having dark features alone could alienate you amongst your peers and society.
Plus, like we said, we always have a soft spot for the rebel who marches to the beat of his own drum!
Using the power of diversity for good, and breaking the mould in an otherwise unbreakable industry, we thank you Omar Sharif.
Until next time,