Born in Alexandria in 1936, Sabri graduated from the prestigious school Victoria College (of which Edward Said, Omar Sharif, Youssef Chahine and King Hussein of Jordan were all alumni). Sabri, however, attended the Maadi branch in Cairo, where his father Galal, an army general, was stationed. He later graduated from Alexandria University’s Faculty of Arts.
As Sabri recounted in an interview, Alexandria was a cosmopolitan, multicultural hub where the Mohamed Ali (later Sayed Darwish) Theatre, the city’s opera house, hosted plays from France and England and operas from Italy. The greatest theatre troupes like the Youssef Wahbi group also performed there during the summer. Sabri also had the chance to attend the theatre festival in Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stafford, and took part in school productions (sometimes playing female parts since it was a boys’ school).
As a young man he lived in the Cairo neighbourhood of Al-Agouza, in the same apartment building as the actor Farid Shawki, the singer-actress Hoda Sultan and the legendary singer Abdel-Halim Hafez, to whom he introduced himself as Peter, an American teenager, just to get his attention. He managed to trick Hafez for a whole year until his father ran into Hafez in the foyer and, pointing to Peter, mentioned that his son Samir liked his work very much.
Fortunately, Hafez took it well and they became friends. Hafez was Sabri’s introduction to the radio, where Sabri’s language skills qualified him for the European Programme channel and he also worked with actress Lobna Abdel-Aziz on a children’s show.
First broadcast on the European Programme and later on the much more popular Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Sabri’s radio show Al-Nady Al-Dawly (The international Club) – which hosted famous figures in various disciplines, such as composer Mohamed Abdel-Wahhab, actress Nelly, Lebanese singer-actress Nour Al-Hoda but also the late Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said and the late President of the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan – became a hit television progamme in the 1970s, when the then new minister of information requested that it should be transferred to the new medium.
Sabri began his acting career at an early stage when he accompanied Hafez to the set of Helmi Halim’s 1959 film Bahlam Bik (Dreaming of You), and asked if he could appear in his song scene. But his first acting with dialogue was a total coincidence, when during the filming of Kamal Al-Shaikh’s 1962 film of the Naguib Mahfouz novel Al-Liss wal Kilab (Chased by Dogs) he ended up replacing an actor who didn’t turn up after telling the actress-singer Shadia that he knew the lines and rehearsing them with Al-Shaikh.
He would go on to take part in over 200 films and TV series, making remarkable appearances in comedies like Niazi Mostafa’s 1966 Talateen Yoam Fel Segn (Thirty Days in Jail), based on a play by Naguib Al-Rehany and Badie Khairy, and cowritten by Mostafa, Abdel Hay Adib, Bahgat Amar and Hussein El Sayed.
He collaborated with the legendary comedian Fouad El-Mohandes on Akhtar Rajul Fi Al-Alam (The Most Dangerous Man in the World, 1967), directed by Niazi Mostafa, and Shanbu Fil Masyada (Shanbu in the Trap, 1968) directed by Youssef Hegazy, the latter made only a few months after the June War defeat that generated a widespread mood of depression and providing much needed hilarious farce. In 1969 Sabri starred in Fatin Abdel-Wahab’s comedy Nos Saah Gawaz (Half an Hour of Marriage), adapted from the 1965 Broadway play Cactus Flower.
In the 1976, famous as the host of Al-Nady Al-Dawly, Sabri co-starred with Farid Shawki in Hassan El-Imam’s Wa Bil Walidayn Ihsanan (Be Good to Your Parents), which deeply moved President Anwar Sadat, who shook Sabri’s hand warmly after a screening.
Sabri was involved in film production, making dozens of films ranging from tragic dramas to action flicks like Mohamed Abdel-Aziz’s 1986 Manzel Al-A’ela Al-Masmoma (House of the Poisoned Family) and (also starring him) Nader Galal’s 1989 Gahim Taht Al-Maa (Hell under Water), with cinematography by Said Shimi, the first Egyptian film to be shot largely underwater with help from the Egyptian-Armenian photographer Ohan, one of the founders of Al-Ahram studio, to waterproof the camera.
Sabri never stopped making films, cinema being his most abiding passion. His last appearance was in Magdi Ahmed Ali’s 2 Talaat Harb Square, which premiered in Luxor African Film Festival last March.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.