How Omar Sharif Jr. Is Continuing His Grandfather’s Legacy as an Actor and Activist for Social Justice

·5-min read

Omar Sharif Jr. got early career advice from his celebrated grandfather, the legendary Hollywood actor Omar Sharif best known for his Golden Globe-winning performances in 1962’s “Lawrence of Arabia” and the title role in 1965’s “Dr. Zhivago”: Acting is not enough.

“My grandfather used to always say there’s nothing more boring than being an actor,” the 38-year-old Sharif told TheWrap with a chuckle. “Later on in his life, he used to take roles just literally to pay off gambling debts. It wasn’t for anything else. It was to cover costs at the racetrack.”

Despite his grandfather’s words, Omar Sharif Jr. did become an actor — and he recently joined the cast of the long-running Israeli rom-com series “Beauty and the Baker.” But being a performer is indeed not enough for the younger Sharif, who has been an outspoken LGBTQ activist since famously coming out as gay in 2012 while living in Egypt in the midst of the Arab Spring.

And now Sharif — who has Egyptian roots on his father’s side and Jewish Holocaust survivors on his mother’s — has taken the post of chief advancement officer at Holocaust Museum LA while continuing his acting career. In his new part-time role, he will lead development and communications strategy for the first survivor-founded and oldest Holocaust museum in the U.S. He’ll also be involved in a major campus expansion that will double the 60-year-old nonprofit institution’s existing footprint in Pan Pacific Park near The Grove shopping center.

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Holocaust Museum LA’s content is mainly historical, yet Sharif said it reflects dangerous trends building in current times. “It’s crazy times we’re living in, with hate crimes at historic levels in America. We truly are regressing,” he said. “When I saw that happening in Egypt after the Arab Spring, I thought, ‘That’s because this is Egypt, right?’ Well, you watch what happened on January 6 in America, see the rise of hate crimes in America and you realize something more here.”

Sharif’s commitment to activism for LGBTQ causes as well as his philanthropy — he’s been a major fundraiser for the nearby Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, as well — reflects his family’s legacy of trying to break down political, social and cultural barriers.

His celebrated grandfather came to realize that acting can send a message, Sharif said. “He decided he was going to retire from acting unless roles truly spoke to him or about issues or things that he was passionate about,” Sharif said, “which is why he had little bit of a revival later in his life, being nominated for the French César Award [winning Best Actor in 2004 for his turn as a Muslim shopkeeper who befriends a Jewish youth in “Monsieur Ibrahim”] and for amazing films that spoke to tolerance between religious minorities and interfaith relationships.”

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This message also came loud and clear from his grandmother, Egyptian actress Faten Hamamah, who always took on roles that spoke to the advancement of women in Egyptian society.

“They [both] said always make sure that you have a cause or something that you’re passionate about to champion,” Sharif said. “And so that’s sort of always been embedded in who I am.”

The Canadian-born actor-activist has lived in Canada, Egypt and elsewhere, earning his B.A. from Queen’s University in Ontario and an M.S. from the London School of Economics. He came out as gay in 2012 while living in Egypt in the midst of the Arab Spring uprising, when LGBTQ individuals face legal challenges under harsh morality provisions.

“Some say it was brave, some say it was stupid,” he said, then later adding: “To be accurate, there were several court cases to revoke my [Egyptian] citizenship in 2012 and 2014 right after I came out. We don’t technically know what my status is in the country. I risk arrest being so outspoken, though — I think ‘inciting debauchery’ is the charge now.”

Sharif detailed his journey in his recently published memoir, “A Tale of Two Omars: A Memoir of Family Revolution and Coming Out During the Arab Spring.”

Like his paternal grandfather and grandmother, Sharif said he has never been able to separate his identities as actor and activist. In “Beauty and the Baker,” the love story of a baker and an heiress, Sharif joined the show in the third season as a gay Hollywood agent of Palestinian descent who’s married to an Israeli travel agent.

“We have a child together via surrogacy, which, until recently wasn’t even allowed in Israel,” Sharif said. “It’s one of the stories that opens hearts and minds that I was compelled to do, by [show] creator Assi Azar.”

Pushing boundaries in onscreen roles is also a family tradition. Sharif said his grandfather was not always stereotyped as the “Arab sheik or king or terrorist,” but he was working in a racist Hollywood that always saw him as “the other.”

Omar Sharif in a still from director Henry Levin’s film, “Ghengis Khan.” (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Omar Sharif in a still from director Henry Levin’s film, “Ghengis Khan.” (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“Othering was just normal. And so my grandfather, who was Egyptian, was playing a Russian poet, a Cuban revolutionary and Genghis Khan, Mongolian emperor, which is something that wouldn’t fly today,” Sharif said. “Just because my grandfather was other and different and exotic, they felt he could fill any sort of category.”

Diversity in Hollywood is improving, Sharif said, noting Billy Eichner’s upcoming gay rom-com film “Bros” as an example. He has three TV shows in development for STX Entertainment that he hopes will advance “honesty and empathy” between people and cultures. (He declined to discuss the titles or plotlines.)

However, he doesn’t believe his work is done either in Hollywood or as a global activist for a variety of causes. “I continue to raise funds for other organizations to like the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and the MPTF [Motion Picture & Television Fund] as well,” he said. “And all of that just yields to one result and that is that my friends no longer pick up my phone calls. I’m always asking for money for one cause or another.”

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