Born of an Italian mother and an Egyptian father, Rushdi Abaza was the scion of a respectable old family whose members held high posts in the state. As a student at St. Mark’s College in Alexandria, Rushdi was fonder of body building and athletics than academic studies. He was well-proportioned and muscular, with a handsome face radiating Egyptian and Roman blood. He captivated the camera immediately and it remained his captive for over a quarter of a century.
Abaza stepped directly into cinema without any stage experience. His performance was therefore purely cinematic, unaffected by the theater, unlike stars such as Yusef Wahbi, Yahya Chahine, and Shoukri Sarhan.
His debut was in a small role in al-Millionaira al-Saghi ra (The Little Millionairesse, 1948) starring Faten Hamama and directed by Kamal Karim.
It was two Italian directors, Alessandrini and Virenco, who first gave Abaza prominent roles: in Alessandrini’s Amina (1949) and Virenco’s Imra’a min Nar (Woman of Fire, 1950) and Sham al-Nessim (1952: the title is the name of an old Egyptian festival). Egyptian directors failed to realize that a star had been born who could, if properly handled, elevate Egyptian cinema. For over seven years, they only gave him unimportant minor roles, as a playboy or villain. Finally Husayn Fawzi chose him for lead roles opposite Na’eema Akef —then at her peak— in Bahr al-Gharam (Sea of Love, 1955) and Tamr Henna (Tamarind, 1957). Top directors soon began to compete for Rushdi.
Among his important films at the time were Kamal al-Shaykh’s Tuggar al-Mawt (Merchants of Death, 1953), and Ezz al-Din Zulfiqar’s Tariq al-Ammal (The Road of Hope, 1957) and Imra’a fil-Tariq (Woman on the Road, 1958).
With fame came a flood of offers; in a single year (1960), he starred in eleven films. In 1961 he was chosen by Abbas Kamel for H-3 (1961) opposite Suad Husni. This film was the first of twelve that Abaza and Husni made together over a period of thirteen years, ending with Atef Salem’s Ayna Akli? (Where’s My Mind? 1974).
As he approached fifty, Abaza’s health deteriorated, as did his films. From the last seven years of his life, perhaps only two films will be remembered: Ureedu Halan (I Want a Solution, 1975) by Barakat and Alam Iyal fi Iyal (A World of Kids, 1975) by Muhammad Abd al-Aziz.
He died in 1982 before completing al-Aqweya’a (The Strong).