The man born Michel Chalhoub was not only one of the first Arab actors to cross over to mainstream popularity — he was one of the first actors to play a wide variety of ethnic characters, period.
Sharif’s early work was playing people of Arabic ancestry, such as, in his native Egypt, the part of Ahmed in the 1954 Arabic-language “Struggle In the Valley,” in which he stars as an engineer caught in a revenge plot. Eight years later he would make his mark on Western cinema in “Lawrence of Arabia” as Sherif Ali, the paragon of Arab nationalism.
But those early roles quickly morphed into parts that went far beyond the Arab world — in “Doctor Zhivago,” where he played the Russian Yuri Andreyevich Zhivago; as Jewish gangster Nicky Arnstein in “Funny Girl;” in 2003’s French-language “Monsieur Ibrahim,” in which he plays a Turkish immigrant who takes in a Jewish orphan; or as Latino revolutionary Che Guevara in 1969’s “Che!” …
Part of Sharif’s ability to tackle so many different roles is that he possessed a look more exotic than many British or American-born actors, and a cynic might say that these opportunities really had as much to do with Hollywood’s inability to distinguish between ethnicities, or at least to cultivate actors from other places, than anything else. But it was Sharif’s own talent — and maybe just as important, his ability to intuit otherness, even if it wasn’t his otherness — that enabled him to play these parts.