On the Big Screen, Where All the Arabs Are Israeli

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Byline: Dan Ephron

Anyone watching HBO's ongoing miniseries "House of Saddam" surely must be struck by the lead actor's resemblance to the late Iraqi dictator. Me? I was struck by something else: his Israeli accent. "Why does Saddam Hussein sound like my old grocer in Jerusalem?" I called out before checking the movie credits online. (Yes, an Israeli, but no, not my grocer.)

The post-9/11 era might be Hollywood's Arab moment. But Israeli actors seem to be reaping the benefit, getting many of the best parts. Take Yigal Naor. Before portraying Saddam Hussein, the stout actor from Tel Aviv played Iraqi Ahmed Chalabi in "10 Days to War," an Arab interrogator in the Hollywood film "Rendition" and a Palestinian militant in Steven Spielberg's "Munich." One of his costars in "House of Saddam" is Israeli Uri Gavriel, who portrays the depraved Chemical Ali. Gavriel also played a Saudi terrorist in "The Kingdom."

The cultural crossover has a long history and has made a few Israelis regulars on the Hollywood character-actor circuit. Sasson Gabai says his run began with "The Impossible Spy," a 1987 British film in which he played Syria's defense minister. Since then, he has portrayed Arabs or Muslims in at least 10 films, most notably "Rambo III." (He was Sylvester Stallone's Afghan guide.) "It's probably a combination of my Mediterranean look and my acting skills," he says. Even Chaim Topol, who played Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof" in the West End, has an Arab role to his credit: in the 1966 Kirk Douglas war drama "Cast a Giant Shadow."

Israeli actors are often preferred, some in the industry say, because their English tends to be good and their acting style is Western--as opposed to the more florid, theatrical technique popular in Arab drama. …