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Ahmed Zaki, 55, top Egyptian actor

CAIRO -- Ahmed Zaki, who as one of Egypt's most acclaimed actors portrayed former Egyptian presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, died March 27. He was 55.

Mr. Zaki was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2004. He had been hospitalized since March 8 and suffered a brain hemorrhage two weeks later. Before slipping into a coma earlier this month, Mr. Zaki had received calls from President Hosni Mubarak and celebrities had flocked to his hospital room.

Mr. Zaki died before accomplishing one of his dreams -- the making of the film ''Halim" about the life of the celebrated Egyptian singer, Abdel Halim Hafiz.

The producer of ''Halim," Imad el-Din Adeeb, said Sunday that Mr. Zaki insisted on leaving his hospital bed to take part in shooting, although ''we kept telling him that the decor was not complete and he had to wait."

''He is a great artist of rare talent. Such artists are born only once every 100 years," Adeeb said.

Director Mohammed Khan, who worked with Mr. Zaki on six films, compared him to Robert DeNiro, saying he had a ''natural instinct for acting."

''Even without the technical and other advanced means which Hollywood has, Zaki gave Egyptian film making the glamour of real art," Khan said.

Khan's last movie with Mr. Zaki was 2001's ''Days of Sadat," depicting 40 years of the late president's life. Three years earlier, Mr. Zaki had starred in ''Nasser 56," a movie that centered on the fateful summer of 1956, when then-president Nasser thumbed his nose at the West by nationalizing the Suez Canal.

Film critic Tarek Shinawy described Mr. Zaki as the yardstick for all other Egyptian actors in the 1980s and the 1990s, once telling The Associated Press that the quality of his performance was so high that ''no director would have bothered to repeat shots with Zaki. His first shots were always the best."

Mr. Zaki was born to a poor family in the Nile delta town of Zagazig on Nov. 18, 1949. He started his professional career even before he graduated from the Cairo Higher Institute for Drama Studies in 1974. His first play was ''Hello Shalbi," a comedy.

Mr. Zaki also broke the color barrier in Egyptian cinema when he become the first black actor to play the leading roles usually reserved for light-skinned Egyptians. Before Mr. Zaki, black actors tended to play secondary or comic roles.

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