Dubai: When Egyptian-American actor Rami Malek made history at the 91st Academy Awards, it was with a little help from another cinematic giant.
Malek became the first ever Arab to win an Oscar award for Best Actor on Sunday evening, for his portrayal of the musical icon Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. In his acceptance speech, he said: “I am the son of immigrants from Egypt. I’m a first-generation American, and part of my story is being written right now.”
His historical win evoked memories of another pioneering Egyptian who took Hollywood by storm, and who paved the path for actors like him: Omar Sharif, who was nominated at the 35th Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor for Doctor Zhivago in 1963.
It’s not the first time Malek has followed in Sharif’s footsteps. Earlier this year, he won a Golden Globe for Best Actor for Bohemian Rhapsody, echoing the three Golden Globe wins that Sharif nabbed in the 1960s — once for Doctor Zhivago, and twice for Lawrence of Arabia.
Backstage at the Oscars, the Los Angeles-born Malek admitted that he grew up loving Egyptian icons such as Sharif. But the 37-year-old actor — who greeted one reporter in fragmented Arabic — said he felt like an outsider at a young age.
“My sister’s born in Egypt. I think when I grew up as a kid, part of me felt like I needed to shed some of that. I didn’t feel like I fit in. I definitely felt like the outsider. As I got older, I realised just how beautiful my heritage and my tradition is, and the wealth of culture, and magic, and music, and film, and just pure art that comes out of the Middle East … I am so privileged to represent it,” said Malek.
“To anyone from there, and for that matter, the entire world: we’ve all got a shot at this. We really do,” he added.
Back to the start
Though the actors, nearly 50 years apart, have had remarkably different journeys — one born a stranger to Hollywood, the other living next door to it — their victories have become milestones in an industry that rarely celebrates Arab talent.
Malek was born a twin in Los Angeles to Egyptian immigrants Saeed Malek and Nelly Abdul Malek in 1981. His parents, who are of Coptic Orthodox Christian faith, had left Cairo in 1978 and settled in Sherman Oakes.
While his identical brother Sami pursued teaching, and his older sister Yasmine became an ER doctor, Malek decided to chase his dream of acting.
His career dates back to an appearance on the TV series Gilmore Girls fifteen years ago, but it only began to pick up steam with Mr Robot in 2015. The award-winning series, directed by fellow Egyptian-American Sam Esmail, sees Malek play the lead character of Elliot Alderson, a role that earned him a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series.
Sharif was meanwhile born Michel Dimitri Chalhoub in Alexandria to a Melkite Catholic family in 1932. He began his film career in 1954 with two breakout films — Shaytan Al Sahra (Devil of the Saha) and Sira’ Fi Al Wadi (Struggle in the Valley). The following year, he changed his name and converted to Islam in order to marry co-star Faten Hamama. He quickly became a prolific actor in a prolific industry, appearing in upwards of a dozen Arabic films before the decade was over.
His first English-language role came when he was 30 years old — Sherif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia, now considered one of the more complex supporting actor roles in Hollywood history.
Comparisons between Malek and Sharif are mostly born out of their joint heritage, a mirrored passion for acting and a lack of visible Arab actors in America.
But unlike Sharif, who began his career in black-and-white Egyptian cinema, Malek’s sights have always been set on Hollywood. Indeed, he was able to build a career in the industry despite its stubborn reluctance to make room for Arab characters. The closest thing to an Arab role Malek has had, perhaps, is Pharaoh Ahkmenrah in the Night at the Museum trilogy, or a member of an Egyptian coven in Twilight: Breaking Dawn, or the terrorist Marcos Al Zacar on ‘24’, who hailed from a fictional Middle Eastern nation called Kamistan.
Nonetheless, like Malek, Sharif also had to bank on his so-called ethnic ambiguity and multilingual abilities to get work around the world, a fact he was open about.
The actor spoke English, French, Greek, Italian, Spanish and Arabic. For better or worse, he was chosen to play everyone from Mongolian ruler Genghis Khan to Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara.
In an interview with Egyptian media in 2008, however, the actor lamented on his own feelings of not belonging to any one place.
“I’m unique in my profession. Every other actor has got a base, a country where you work, and from there, sometimes you have a location in another country or somewhere else [to shoot] — but you have a home. I don’t,” said Sharif, adding, “Every film I make is in a difference place … I would rather have a real base.”
Sharif died of a heart attack in Cairo in 2015, the same year Malek began Mr Robot, at the age of 83.
Who is Rami Malek?
Rami Malek, 37, is an Egyptian-American actor who was born on May 12, 1981, in Los Angeles, California. The actor made his first acting appearance as a guest star on the teen television show Gilmore Girls in 2004. He also featured in the Fox sitcom The War at Home (2005-2007), and the HBO miniseries The Pacific (2010). He won an Emmy for his portrayal of hacker Elliot Alderson in the ongoing series Mr Robot, which will air its final season this year. Malek became the first Arab actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for Bohemian Rhapsody this year.
Who was Omar Sharif?
Omar Sharif, who died in 2015 aged 83, was a prolific Egyptian actor and one of the only Arab actors to successfully crossover into Hollywood, after less than a decade of acting in the Arab world. He was recognised by an international audience for two particular films, Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia, both of which won him Golden Globe awards in the 1960s. Despite being nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the 35th Academy Awards for Lawrence of Arabia, however, he lost to Ed Begley for his role in Sweet Bird of Youth.
Malek falls off Oscars stage
It was an eventful night for Rami Malek. Shortly after winning his first Academy Award for lead actor in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Malek slipped near the Oscars stage. As the Dolby Theatre began clearing out, there were whispers backstage that Malek had fallen off the stage. House medics confirmed that the actor — who won for his portrayal of Queen’s frontman, Freddie Mercury — slipped, but did not fall off the stage. Malek was surrounded by a small group of handlers as medics discreetly checked on him while he was seated in the front row. After being checked out by medics, Malek walked on his own back up to the stage, before exiting from the wings with medics. It was later confirmed that Malek did not suffer any serious injuries.
Did you know?
The huge success of Bohemian Rhapsody appears to have taken Hollywood by surprise: Rami Malek’s only forthcoming film role is as the voice of Chee-Chee the gorilla in the upcoming Voyage of Doctor Dolittle.