By Lily Rothman
July 10, 2015

Actor Omar Sharif, who has died at 83, first made major international waves with his role in Lawrence of Arabia, released in late 1962. But, as TIME noted in an early 1963 profile of the breakout actor, he was already a star in his homeland.

Sharif, born Maechel Shalhoub (per TIME’s 1963 spelling), was the son of a wealthy Egyptian lumber magnate but he knew he wanted more than a life of timber. He took on the name Omar Sharif calculating that English-speaking audiences were already familiar with the name Omar—both Omar Khayyam and Omar Bradley were well known—and that Sharif would carry just the right amount of exotic allure to attract Western audiences. But, though he had his sights set on Hollywood, his big break came at home:

He became a Cairo playboy, good at billiards, unfaithful to his sports cars and always buying new ones. He played, too, with the theater, acting a little. Then one day he got a chance to audition for a leading role opposite Fatten Hamama.

Every syllable of her precious name—fat ten ha ma ma—was a treasure on the tongues of the moviegoers of Egypt. She was, by Egyptian description, “the Shirley Temple of Arabian movies”—a star since the age of seven and a radiant symbol of sweet, untouched Islamic puritanism. She was 20 and spoke no English. When she auditioned Omar in her east-side apartment high over the Nile, she said to him: “Do something.”

“What?”

“Act, of course.”

“Get thee to a nunnery,” bellowed Omar, pointing a long finger at her and pouring Prince Hamlet’s cruel speech into her uncomprehending ears.

…It got him the job. And in the picture there occurred a moment that stunned the Pan-Arabian world. She kissed him.

In the end, she did more than that. She married him—a union that lasted about two decades—and he became just as famous as she was. (The fateful kiss also helped usher in a new standard of propriety for Egyptian film, in which kissing was more common.) And, by TIME’s reckoning, it should have been no surprise that Hamama chose him. “Women who have seen the picture [Lawrence of Arabia] say that they go away thinking about the fine performances of O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins and so on,” TIME noted, “but at night they dream about Omar Sharif.”

Read the full story from 1963, here in the TIME Vault: Arabian Knight

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