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Remembering Egypt's Roushdy Abaza: The silver screen's first man

On what would be his 91st birthday, Ahram Online remembers actor Roushdy Abaza and his mark in Egyptian cinema

Ashraf Gharib, Thursday 3 Aug 2017
Rushdy Abaza
Egyptian star Rushdy Abaza
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The young aristocrat Roushdy Abaza, who was born on 3 August 1926 to an Egyptian father and an Italian mother, sought adventure by entering the realm of acting in the 1940s.

In every year since the end of WWII, a new star emerged in Egyptian Cinema; Emad Hamdy in Always In My Heart (1946), Farid Shawqi in Angel of Mercy (1946), Kamal El-Shennawi in War Profiteer (1947) and Shoukry Sarhan in Nadia (1949).

Abaza's year was 1948, when he appeared as the leading man in The Little Millionaire directed by Kamal Barakat.

In the film, Abaza played the role of a pilot who falls in love with a girl of Turkish origin, overcoming the obstacles that faced him.

It was as if Barakat, who directed only one other film, entered the world of cinema just to give us this exceptional star.

The Little Millionaire may not have been a particularly significant film in Egyptian cinema, or even stood out from the 49 films released that year, yet it did serve as the launching pad for one of the most important leading men of all times of the silver screen in Egypt.

Abaza was clearly qualified for distinction and stardom given his handsomeness, athletic physique, light-heartedness, and strong presence, not to mention his acting skills.

Abaza’s up-and-coming contemporaries – Farid Shawqi, Kamal El-Shennawi then Shoukry Sarhan – arguably missed at least one of these characteristics.

In spite of this, Abaza's first three films were a disappointment for him, namely The Man with Two Faces (1949) directed by Wali Eddine Sameh, Amina (1949) by Goffredo Alessandrini and Woman of Fire (1950) by Frionicco.

Abaza, who spoke five languages fluently, then moved to Italy and began a new adventure in search of international stardom. He took part in a number of Italian films including Wish and The Ten Commandments.

The Italian adventure was a relative step backward in Abaza’s path, for when he returned to Egypt in the mid-1950s, he found that his peers who started their careers at the same time had far surpassed him.

While Abaza was chasing international stardom, Shoukry Sarhan played the leading role in Son of the Nile (1951) directed by Youssef Chahine, while Farid Shawqi and Kamal El-Shennawi co-starred in the important film The Count of Monte Cristo (1950) by Henri Barakat, as well as dozens of other films in the 1950s.

Having to start anew, Abaza played a few humble roles; the most famous of which was Foreman Hassan (1952) directed by Salah Abu-Seif. The only benefit he gained from these films was that they announced his permanent return to Egypt.

His real start came in Conspiracy (1953) by Kamal El-Sheikh, where he played a young man coming between an innocent wife (Madiha Youssri) and her husband (Yehia Chahine). Although it was a stereotypical role, Abaza gave a distinctive performance.

Between 1954 and 1958, he appeared in 24 films; most of which are considered classics of Egyptian cinema.

A few examples include They Made Me a Criminal (1954) by Atef Salem, Life or Death (1954) by Kamal El-Sheikh, Rendezvous (1956) by Barakat, Tamr Henna (1957) by Hussein Fawzi, Sleepless (1957) by Salah Abu-Seif, Sultan (1958) by Niazi Mostafa, and Djamilah (1958) by Youssef Chahine.

Although Abaza’s films at this time were significant to Arab cinema and were renowned for their high quality, he played mainly secondary and supporting roles.

However, these films gave him the chance to play a wide variety of characters, from the villain to the light-hearted young man to the athlete who is loyal to his friend.

Abaza was, however, in need of a director who believed in his abilities and could push them in the right direction.

This director was Ezzeddine Zulfikar, who worked with Abaza for the first time in I am Departing (1955). From then onwards, he took Abaza under his wing and gradually cast him in bigger roles.

The fruit of this collaboration materialised in Abaza's first leading roles in Port Said (1957), Way of Hope (1957), and A Woman on the Road (1958), which heralded Abaza’s artistic maturity.

Indeed, Ezzeddine Zulfikar decided to bear the risk and take this step on his own so, he produced, directed and co-wrote with Youssef Gohar the scenario of his immortal masterpiece The Second Man (1959).

In his roles as a villain, Abaza had a way of gaining the audience's sympathy, as can be seen in his first major film, Conspiracy (1953).

In his role as a gangster in An Angel and a Devil (1960) by Kamal El-Sheikh, where Abaza's character kidnaps a little girl for ransom, it was the actor's light-heartedness that garnered viewers’ sympathy.

In A Man in Our Home (1961), Abaza played the stubborn, hot-tempered antagonist who transforms by the end of the film thanks to the militant spirit that freedom fighter Ibrahim Hamdy (Omar Sharif) instils in everyone close to him.

In other films, Abaza played the villain from the first fame to the last.

Abaza played Esmat Kazem in Ezzeddine Zulfikar’s masterpiece The Second Man (1959), a major turning point in Abaza’s career.

The film firmly placed Abaza's name among the stars and catapulted him like an arrow that swept away everything in its path, leaving all others behind.

Who could hate Abaza’s character in The Second Man? He succeeds with his spectacular presence in making us enjoy, and even love, a man who has committed all kinds of crimes; murder, money counterfeiting, drug trafficking and smuggling.

He was especially apt in the action scenes, and used his facial expressions and voice to portray a cunning and shrewd character with no trace of overacting, showing off or falling in the trap of the stereotypical villain.

Some consider that this film’s success and Abaza’s excellent performance were due to Youssef Gohar’s plot and skilled scriptwriting as well as Zulfikar’s directing.

However, if this were true – with all due respect to the stature of Gohar and Zulfikar – Abaza would not have portrayed the unique villain in other films, such as in My Heart (1971), which was adapted from Ihsan Abdel-Quddous’s novel, and The Devil and The Autumn (1972).

Abaza was definitely one of those stars who created their own roles, unlike others whose stardom is connected with certain roles.

In the film The Road (1964), which was adapted from a novel by Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz and was directed by Hossam Eddine Mostafa, Abaza played the role of Saber, a young man who searches for his father and is transformed into a killer over the lust for money.

His performance in the film was superior to that of his successor Nour El-Sherif, who starred in a remake under the title Stigma (1986).

He also surpassed the performance of his predecessor Emad Hamdy when he repeated his role in Life is Gone My Son (1978) directed by Atef Salem, which was a remake of An Unknown Woman (1959) by Mahmoud Zulfikar.

Despite Abaza’s talent and success with all the directors he worked with, he also owed a great part of his popularity and stardom to director Fateen Abdel-Wahab, who was able to transform him into a comedian of unique quality.

Fateen cast him in a number of roles that showed his comedic abilities, such as The Thirteenth Wife (1962), What A Shrew (1963) and The Nile Bride (1964).

In the 1970s, the star grew comfortable playing supporting yet superb roles in important films such as My Story So Far (1973) directed by Hassan Al-Imam, My Dear Daughter (1971) by Helmy Rafla and Where’s My Mind (1974) by Atef Salem.

The abusive husband in I Want A Solution (1975) opposite Faten Hamama remains one his memorable works.

Over the course of 30 years, Abaza married a number of famous Egyptian actresses including Tahiya Karioka, Samia Gamal as well as the Lebanese singer Sabah.

His long career ended abruptly with his last film The Strong People (1980), which he did not complete and was screened two years after his death.

Abaza passed away on 27 August 1980 at the age of 53 after a struggle with cancer.

He is remembered across genres and generations as the action star, the villain, the comedian and the romantic lover, rendering him one of Egyptian cinema’s finest first men.

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