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July 12, 2015

Five Elegant Men

Circumstances have kept me away from my blog, so that up to now I haven't been able to note the passage of three sterling British actors who passed on in June. A few days ago, a fourth unfortunately joined their ranks. But first we must note the death of an actor who was probably the most famous ever to come from the Arab world.

If Peter O'Toole had one of the greatest star debuts ever in "Lawrence of Arabia," then Omar Sharif had one of the greatest screen entrances ever in that same film.

First, a single gunshot rings out from nowhere, killing Lawrence's guide.

Then, a dot on the landscape appears, approaching Lawrence's encampment. With excruciating slowness, it trots through the hazy desert heat, becoming first a shadow, then a mirage, then--finally--a man on a camel. That man was Omar Sharif, and he will be remembered as long as "Lawrence of Arabia" is shown anywhere in the world.

With his dark, well-chiseled features and charismatic grace, Sharif insinuated his way into the imaginations of moviegoers with a string of hits in the 1960s that included "Doctor Zhivago" and "Funny Girl." His career sagged after that decade, in a welter of low-profile movies and high-profile gambling debts. However, in later films such as "Monsieur Ibrahim," he proved he never lost the skill and presence of a major star.

Sharif was one in a sad necrology that also included Christopher Lee, Ron Moody, Patrick Macnee, and--now--Roger Rees. Between them, the four British actors stand as exemplars of the glories of British Rep.

It was the misfortune of Lee, Moody and Macnee to suffer at least somewhat from typecasting, though Moody's Fagin in "Oliver!" and Macnee's John Steed in "The Avengers" are two of the happiest memories of my youth. Moody's giddy, funny/sinister performance of such songs as "Get Out and Pick a Pocket or Two" and "I'm Reviewing the Situation" revealed a musical comedy star par excellence. Macnee's unflappable, bowlered-and-brollied Steed was simultaneously a parody and an apotheosis of the eternal heroic Englishman.

Lee often lamented his typecasting as horror villains. But few screen Draculas ever matched his menacing panache, his Saruman in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy was an exemplar of authoritative evil, and in films such as "The Wicker Man" he practiced a more nuanced, complex form of menace. He was also not above parodying himself, as when he hosted "Saturday Night Live" in its first glorious years. It is especially poignant to think of his playing the Grim Reaper in an SNL sketch, comforting a little girl (played by Laraine Newman) whose dog he had just claimed. We can all use a little comfort himself after losing Christopher Lee.

The same can be said about the loss of Roger Rees, an actor who never suffered from typecasting. Everyone knew and loved Lord John Marbury, the eccentric, chain-smoking British ambassador on "The West Wing," but there was also his Nicholas Nickleby, his Fred Holywell (Scrooge's nephew) in the 1984 George C. Scott version of "A Chirstmas Carol," his role as Malcolm opposite Ian McKellen and Judi Dench in "Macbeth," and any number of roles encompassing everything from Proust to "Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties." Rees was one of those actors who showed up everywhere, did everything, and brought an elegant, convincing gravitas to everything he did. As Fred Holywell might have said, God bless him..


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