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,Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan

"I am the only foreign actor in the world who is foreign to every place," Omar Sharif said in a 2004 interview in support of François Dupeyron's 2003 feature Monsieur Ibrahim. The French language film, about a Muslim shopkeeper who befriends a Jewish boy in the societal tumult of 1960s Paris, was made forty years after Sharif's English language debut in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962). In a career spanning more than fifty years, the Egypt-born actor often found himself playing characters of nationalities a world away from his own – Mexicans, Spaniards, Argentineans, Germans, Italians, Eastern Indians, Austrians, Russians, Afghans, Mongols, Jews and even such larger-than-life historic and fictional figures as Genghis Khan and Captain Nemo.

Omar Sharif was born Michel Demitri Shalhoub on April 10, 1932. The son of an Alexandria lumber merchant, Michel was baptized Catholic and raised to speak French. Growing chubby from eating sweets, his mother sent him to an English school, believing the British to eat poorly and wanting her son to be beautiful and famous. A student of mathematics, Michel longed to break into acting and was aided immeasurably towards that end by the staggering good looks bestowed upon him by his mixed Lebanese and Syrian bloodlines. In 1953, he made his first film, Blazing Sun (Siraa Fil-Wadi, 1954), and fell in love with costar Faten Hamama. Sharif married the Egyptian icon in 1955, converting to Islam for the sake of his new bride and changing his name to Omar al-Sharif. During the first decade of the golden age of Egyptian cinema, Sharif worked steadily as a romantic leading man. He was a dashing desert explorer in the French-Italian The Lebanese Mission (La Châtelaine du Liban, (1956) with Jean Servais, Gianna Maria Canale and future "Bond girl" Luciana Paluzzi, played the title role in Goha (1958) opposite newcomer Claudia Cardinale, and was a village youth who comes rudely of age after a drama-filled Struggle on the Nile (Seraa fil nin, 1959).

Taking on a role first offered to Horst Buchholz, Alain Delon and Maurice Ronet, Sharif spent 20 months living out of a tent to film Lawrence of Arabia. That investment of time was repaid tenfold with an Academy Award® nomination and a Golden Globe win for "Best Supporting Actor," but Sharif was also locked in to a seven-year contract at "a miserable salary" per picture. Although he would not want for work over the next few decades, no ordinary role would do for what one journalist blithely dubbed "a charming, debonair, black-eyed, hand-kissing international man of mystery." Future film roles included the cuckolded King of Armenia in Anthony Mann's all-star The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), a Yugoslav partisan in The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964), a Spanish priest in Behold a Pale Horse (1964) and dreamy Tsarist medico Dr. Zhivago (1965) in a sprawling adaptation of the novel by Boris Pasternak. With his swarthy looks and viper's grin, it was perhaps inevitable that Sharif would be called upon to play 13th Century Mongol ruler Genghis Khan (a role played previously by John Wayne in The Conqueror, 1956). The opportunity gave him his first starring role in a Hollywood film but the experience was less than stellar.

In many ways, Genghis Khan (1965) fits the stereotype of the overblown Hollywood production filming abroad. Bound to his Columbia contract, Sharif was stuck for five months in rundown Belgrade, where even the film studio had a dirt floor. He was further aghast to learn that fourth-billed Eli Wallach was making the same salary for a week of work. For his own part, Wallach was in desperate need of funds to recover income he had expected from a short-lived West End run of a double bill of Murray Schisgal one-acts directed by John Gielgud; as an added incentive to take the part of the Shah of Khwarezm, the Brooklyn-born actor was allowed to write his own dialogue.

Wallach's Lord Jim (1965) costar James Mason was also pressed into service. The veteran British actor would later characterize Genghis Khan as "an income tax or alimony type of film" and he wasn't merely being droll – a much-publicized divorce from his first wife had cleaned out Mason's life savings. Gamely donning a pigtail and slit eyes to play the ambassador from Peking, Mason bore the brunt of the critics' derision for his (according to The New York Times) "nasal caricature of a Chinese minister" and (according to Time) "washee-quickee-accent." Having a better time of the assignment was Woody Strode, whose mixed race bloodline was making it difficult for him to get parts even for black actors. Cast as a deaf-mute, Strode had no dialogue but was grateful for the work and brought his whole family abroad with him for the working vacation.

However dissatisfied the cast of Genghis Khan may have been with the material on hand, most went on to greater glory. Dr. Zhivago overcame its initial chilly critical reception to endure as one of the great romantic films of the Twentieth Century. Eli Wallach became a cult hero with his vivid performance as Tuco in Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966). James Mason enjoyed better fortune with prominent roles in The Blue Max (1966) and Georgy Girl (1966), for which he received his second Academy Award® nomination. (Mason and Sharif would appear together again in Mayerling in 1968.)

Character actors Telly Savalas, Woody Strode (who paired with Sharif again in Che! in 1969), Robert Morley and Michael Hordern all had continued long runs ahead of them, with Savalas making the crossover to television as the star of the hit series Kojak. Less ideally, Stephen Boyd's career would decline in the years after his contract with Fox expired; at the time of his death in 1977, few remembered his post-Ben-Hur (1959) heyday or that he had once been a candidate to play James Bond in Dr. No (1962). Françoise Dorléac (older sister of Catherine Deneuve) was killed in a tragic automobile accident in France in June 1967.

Omar Sharif's unprofitable Columbia contract finally expired after he played Nicky Arnstein to Barbra Streisand's Fanny Brice in Funny Girl (1968). (At the time of filming, the Six Day War broke out and Sharif was condemned by the Arab press for kissing his Jewish costar Streisand onscreen.) Though he remained an above-the-title star for a number of years, the films themselves were run-of-the-mill (Mackenna's Gold, 1969) when not deemed outright bombs (Che!) by critics.

Divorced from Faten Hamama in 1974, Sharif never remarried and relied on gambling to assuage his loneliness when filming in foreign cities. Gaming losses drove the actor into many more subpar pictures, including such outright embarrassments as Bloodline (1979), Oh Heavenly Dog (1980) and the Unification Church-funded Inchon (1981). Sharif retired from acting after his cameo in The 13th Warrior (1999) but was lured back with better-than-average scripts for Monsieur Ibrahim and Hidalgo (2004), the latter marking his return to Morocco for the first time since Lawrence of Arabia.

Producer: Irving Allen, Euan Lloyd, Artur Brauner
Director: Henry Levin
Screenplay: Beverley Cross, Berkely Mather, Clarke Reynolds
Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth
Film Editing: Geoffrey Foot
Art Direction: Mile Nickolic, Heino Weidemann
Music: Dusan Radic
Cast: Stephen Boyd (Jamuga), Omar Sharif (Genghis Khan), James Mason (Kam Ling), Eli Wallach (Shah of Khwarezm), Francoise Dorleac (Bortei), Telly Savalas (Shan).
C-127m. Letterboxed.

by Richard Harland Smith

Omar Sharif interview by Rebecca Murray, 2003
Omar Sharif interview by Evan Williams, 2004
Omar Sharif interview by Paul Byrne, 2004
Omar Sharif interview by Ian Spelling, 2004
"Knave of Hearts," by Tim Dowling, The Guardian, March 22, 2004
The Eternal Male: My Own Story by Omar Sharif with Marie-Therese Guinchard
The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage by Eli Wallach
James Mason: Odd Man Out by Sheridan Morley
James Mason: A Bio-Bibliography by Kevin Sweeney
Goal Dust: The Warm and Candid Memoirs of a Pioneer Black Athlete and Actor by Woody Strode
The Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz