Born on 18 November 1949, Ahmed Zaki was brought up in El-Zagazig, Sharqiya governorate, under difficult familial circumstances. These circumstances were disheartening to the extent that he only received the Intermediate Technical Industrial Education Certificate.
His desire to enrol in the Higher Institute for Cinema was far stronger than the obstacle that was the lack of a high school certificate, which was and still is a prerequisite for enrolling in Egypt’s Academy of Arts. However, his noticeable talent allowed for an exception and he graduated in 1970.
After graduation, Zaki took part in a number of plays, the most notable of which were Hello Shalaby and The Honourable Thief, before participating in his most important play, School of the Rowdies. This play redrew the map of acting stars at the start of the 1970s.
His cinematic beginnings were modest, even slow, starring in Nader Galal's My Son and Mohamed Radi's Sons of Silence (both in 1972). However, the young actor proved to be a star in the making.
Zaki spent several years playing dozens of minor roles before moving on to major ones. He played a number of starring roles in Nader Galal's Budour (1974); Mohamed Radi's Star Maker (1976), Life is a Moment, and Behind the Sun (both in 1978); and Youssef Chahine's Alexandria Why? (1979)
Following this stage, Zaki played three roles that sealed his reputation as an actor and placed him among the top tier of actors in Egypt.
The first of these roles was a starring role in Ali Badrakhan's Shafiqa and Metwalli (1978). The second was his role in the hit play The Kids have grown up (1979), which was considered an extension of his previous play School of the Rowdies. The third was the role of Dr. Taha Hussein, the Dean of Arabic Literature, in the television series The Days (1979) directed by Yahia El-Alamy.
Following his big successes in cinema, theatre and television, Zaki became qualified to occupy the forefront of cinema in the 1980s and beyond.
His very facial features, which were an obstacle in the beginning, became his point of distinction from his colleagues. This explains why Zaki starred in many films from that period including, for instance, Khairy Bishara's The Bloody Fates , Houseboat no. 70 ( both 1982), and Kaboria ( or Crabs) (1990); Atef El-Tayyeb's The Holding Cell (1984), The Innocent (1986), The Escape (1991), and Against the Government (1992); Mohamed Khan's A Dinner Date (1981); and Daoud Abdel-Sayed's The Land of Fear’ (2000).
He became known for a specially honed style that qualified him to present a set of real characters with superb adroitness. Some of the most significant real life characters that he portrayed include Dr. Taha Hussein, in The Days TV series, and the two presidents Gamal Abdel-Nasser, in Mohamed Fadel's Nasser 56 (1996), and Anwar El-Sadat, in Mohamed Khan's The Sadat Days (2001).
Zaki also played music legend Abdel-Halim Hafez in Sherif Arafa's Halim. The film was screened in 2006, one year after Ahmed Zaki’s death on 27 March 2005 following a severe battle with cancer.
Almost two decades after his death, Zaki is still considered by many to be the best actor in the history of Egyptian cinema.
This article is based on a longer article written by Ashraf Gharib for Ahram Online in 2018.