The landmark victory of Egyptian American actor Rami Malek for best actor at the 2019 Oscars came with much fanfare, but it also brought to light a little known piece of American film history that has mostly evaded mainstream media coverage: The story of the man believed to be the first Best Actor winner of Middle Eastern descent, F. Murray Abraham, a nearly 60-year veteran of the profession known for his transcendent role in the 1984 drama film “Amadeus.”
Throughout his career, Abraham, a former gang member who was born in Pittsburgh and grew up in El Paso, has parlayed his considerable acting talents into a wide range of prime-time roles, allowing him to transcend the stereotypes of power-hungry villains, terrorists and others many actors of Middle Eastern descent are usually pigeonholed into upon their arrival in Hollywood.
In “Amadeus”, which stars Tom Hulce as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Abraham plays the legendary composer’s fierce rival Antonio Salieri, stealing the show in a film considered by critics to be among the best of all time.
His crowning as best actor in 1984 was a watershed moment for the career of Abraham, an Assyrian American whose father emigrated to the United States from Syria when he was just 5-years-old.
Abraham began breaking stereotypes right off the bat, accepting a role in the premiere of Pulitzer Prize winning author and screenwriter Ray Bradbury’s comedic play “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” in 1965 in Los Angeles.
From there, Abraham moved to New York City, where he starred as narrator El Gallo in the legendary off-broadway classic musical “The Fantasticks.”
Determined to continue his momentum, Abraham began working in the film and TV industries, playing a wide variety of roles ranging from mechanics to doctors, to police officers and more.
Following a turn as Omar Suarez in “Scarface”, Abraham finally scored his breakthrough role as Salieri, captivating audiences with a passionate portrayal of a musical genius at work.
“I heard the music of true forgiveness filling the theater, conferring on all who sat there, perfect absolution,” Abraham’s character, the self-loathing yet supremely talented composer, recalls in one of the film’s most well known scenes.
“God was singing through this little man to all the world, unstoppable, making my defeat more bitter with every passing bar.”
Abraham’s Salieri describes Mozart’s music in another popular scene as follows:
“And then, suddenly, high above it, an oboe. A single note, hanging there, unwavering. Until a clarinet took it over, sweetened it into a phrase of such delight! This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was a music I had never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing. It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God.”
Abraham also won a Golden Globe Award for best actor following his role in “Amadeus” and has won nine awards over the course of his storied decades-long acting career.
Abraham set to star in upcoming comedy series
At age 79, Abraham’s career has hardly slowed.
He found a recurring role on the popular TV thriller “Homeland” from 2012-2018 as Dar Adal, a CIA black ops director, which earned him two Primetime Emmy nominations. He’s also set to star in the upcoming comedy series “Mythic Quest” on Apple+ TV.
His passion for the job is what has allowed him continued success more than 30 years since making history, as told by former co-star Mandy Patinkin.
“Murray loves what he does – I think he loves it more than breathing,” he told The Guardian. “He has a ‘quiet’ about him that draws you to him and commands your attention. He’s a thrill to work with, meaning he almost does it all for you. You just need to show up and be in the room with him.”