Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Remembering Omar Sharif

He was given one of the most dramatic entrances for an actor in film, cast as a then-unknown by director David Lean in his masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia.  Starting as a shimmering dot in the distant desert, his figure grew slowly larger until he burst into the scene by suddenly shooting Lawrence’s companion and guide. 

According to Wikipedia, Omar Sharif was born Michel Demitri Chalhoub in Alexandria, Egypt, to a Lebanese Christian family.  The city in his youth was a "chaotically cosmopolitan" place (link) in a country ruled by the Westernized King Farouk, who was a friend of his mother and played bridge at their house.  He graduated from Cairo University with a degree in mathematics and physics, but eventually gravitated to acting.  In his early 20s he converted to Islam and scrapped his Christian name in order to marry an Egyptian actress, back when Muslim countries had actresses.  In 1962 Lean cast the 32 year old actor in his first English-speaking role in Lawrence.     

Smart and educated, a noted bridge player and a speaker of many languages, Omar Sharif died a few days ago in Cairo at the age of 83.     

To a generation of middle-aged American women, he came to epitomize the somewhat exotic, always mysterious, ever debonair foreign sex symbol.  His film roles included The Night of the Generals, a favorite of mine in which he plays a German army officer conducting a murder investigation during WWII; the picture also features his co-star from Lawrence, Peter O’Toole.  Perhaps his greatest part was that of a sensitive and altruistic physician and poet consumed by the barbarity of the Russian Revolution in another David Lean epic masterpiece, Doctor Zhivago.

I imagine it would be hard for someone young today to appreciate the breath of his appeal.  But there is this.  In the rolling hills of southwest Wisconsin, far from the plains of the Nile delta or the forests of Lebanon, nestled along the high, picturesque dalles of the Wisconsin River is a little town called Wisconsin Dells.  It has become a resort area hosting the thousands of tourists attracted to the cool water and beautiful north woods countryside.  In the heart of the sprawl is a supper club called Wally’s House of Embers, there since the late 1950s.  For that special occasion it has a cozy, overly-decorated, very private booth for two.  Anyone wanting to reserve it for a romantic dinner by candlelight needs just to ask for the Omar Sharif Room.

R Balsamo

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