15 February 2010 2 Comments

Who’ll play Omar in the movies…?

On the My Book, The Movie blog, I was asked to write about who I’d choose to play Omar Yussef in the movies. Here’s what I wrote:

I didn’t need to think of an actor. Not until I’d finished my book. Then the thinking really started.

The Palestinian detective hero of my books, Omar Yussef, is based on a real Palestinian friend of mine who lives in the Dehaisha Refugee Camp on the edge of Bethlehem in the West Bank. I had no problem visualizing him when I wrote about Omar, because I saw him most days. We spent a lot of time together and, with a gentleman as frequently cantankerous as my real-life chum, believe me, I got the full tour.

Then came publication of the first of my Palestinian crime novels, The Collaborator of Bethlehem. The estimable Marshal Zeringue invited me to write a post for this blog. Instead of having a famous actor always in mind, I had to run through potential candidates.

My wife insisted Pacino was just right for Omar. But I preferred the quiet, gentle Swiss actor Bruno Ganz – who proved he could do cantankerous when he played Hitler a few years ago in Downfall.

At the Leipzig Book Fair last year, my Berlin-based film agent chatted with me about some negotiations with a German tv channel which wanted to make a series based on Omar. As we talked, crowds of local kids dressed in “Manga” costume milled about (apparently this is some Japanese animation thing that has cult dressing-up status among people young enough to make me feel very old.) He asked if I had an actor in
mind for Omar. I mentioned Ganz.

“No, it won’t work,” Roland said.

“Why not?” I asked, as I was bumped from behind by some German kid dressed up as a vampire samurai.

“He’s not Arab. It really ought to be an Arab. But it’s difficult to find an Arab actor who’s well-known enough to carry a production and also speaks German.”

“So Pacino’s out too, I guess.”

“Well, movies are different from tv,” he said, “and if it sold in America, things might be different, too.”

I think they might be different now that The Fourth Assassin has been released. In this new installment of my Palestinian series, Omar comes to New York for a UN conference, only to uncover an assassination plot. The suspect: his own son.

I’d guess the New York setting might make the series seem just that little bit less dauntingly foreign – without betraying its core and making it into just another American detective story.

Which leaves me free to name names.

So here it is: Tony Shalhoub. He showed great dramatic range in The Siege, which was written by Lawrence Wright, a journalist colleague of mine who later won a Pulitzer for The Looming Tower, a nonfiction account of the story behind the 9/11 terrorists. Shalhoub had a nice cameo in 1408, an otherwise typically over the top Stephen King thing. I don’t really watch tv, but I gather Monk is great.

Oh, and I forgot to mention: Tony Shalhoub’s an Arab. He’s descended from Lebanese immigrants.

I hope that’s good enough. I mean, don’t make me find an actor big enough to carry a Hollywood movie who’s actually Palestinian…

2 Responses to “Who’ll play Omar in the movies…?”

  1. Bernadette in Australia 16 February 2010 at 4:19 am #

    Shalhoub would be excellent though perhaps a little stereotyped as Monk??? When I read Collaborator of Bethlehem I had a slightly more grey-haired Khalid Abdalla (from the movie of The Kite Runner) in my mind as Omar but perhaps he is not well known enough in the US.

  2. Matt Beynon Rees 27 February 2010 at 12:08 am #

    Ah, very good idea, indeed. My problem probably is that I don’t see enough movies. Having a small child doesn’t exactly go well with the schedule of my local cinema.


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