Actor Adel Imam plays by his own rules

Egyptian thesp carves unique path

In many ways, Adel Imam is Egypt and all its contradictions, the leading man with character-actor looks, the comedian who never shies away from tackling social taboos.

For close to four decades, Imam has remained the biggest box office draw in Egypt and across much of the Arab world.

The wide-eyed rookie who made his debut in Fatin Abdel Wahab’s 1964 laffer “Me and Him and Her” has matured into the world-weary Cairo everyman looking on at the often irrational antics in his beloved Egypt with increasing bemusement in films such as Marwan Hamed’s 2006 epic drama “The Yacoubian Building” and this year’s “Hassan and Morcoss,” helmed by his son Rami.

Now the 68-year-old thesp is taking in the plaudits as the latest generation of Arab helmers rediscover the man who has survived the political and social upheavals of the past 50 years with his reputation unsullied.

While in his early career he often played the role of the hapless suitor driven to distraction by women, Imam has in recent years developed his fine comic timing in films that dealt with some of Egypt’s most pressing social issues.

It was arguably “The Yacoubian Building,” however, that helped prove his talent for far more than simple slapstick.

While that film tackled everything from Islamic fundamentalism to homosexuality and government corruption, it was Imam’s performance as the fading playboy pasha that gave the film its incandescent heart. Embodying the former glories of Cairo, where women and whisky mixed freely, Imam’s wistful regret betrays the dreams of yesteryear lost to cynicism and disillusionment.

Even Omar Sharif, the only Arab actor of his generation to have succeeded in Hollywood, admits to feeling in awe when the two of them teamed up for the first time in this year’s “Hassan and Morcoss.”

Pic pokes fun at religious bigotry and has been a big hit at the Egyptian box office this year.

Imam, who’s also a U.N. goodwill ambassador, is already planning a reunion with Sharif.

“Adel is the most popular actor in Egypt,” says Sharif. “The producers of ‘Hassan and Morcoss’ already want us to make another comedy together. I’m thinking of doing something along the lines of ‘The Odd Couple.’ That would be fun at our age.”