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Ahmed El-Shenawi, “Snake Surprise” Actor in ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,’ Dies at 75

Ahmed El-Shenawi, the Egyptian-born actor whose character delightfully announces that a slithering helping of “snake surprise” is about to be served in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, has died. He was 75.

El-Shenawi died Feb. 1 in Chelsea, London, his daughter, Eman El-Shenawi, told The Hollywood Reporter. He had been in the hospital for an operation to repair a fracture and developed an infection that led to sepsis, she said.

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El-Shenawi also portrayed a prisoner who inherits a radio in Alan Parker’s harrowing Midnight Express (1978), starring Brad Davis, and he had the pivotal role of the therapist who hypnotizes the detective (Michael Elphick) in The Element of Crime (1984) — Lars von Trier’s first feature and the first in his Europa trilogy. Both movies played at Cannes.

“I believe his brief but impactful moments of fame resonated so much among many,” his daughter said.

In Steven Spielberg’s Temple of Doom (1984), the extremely large El-Shenawi, sporting flowing pearl necklaces and a thick black mustache that extends to his sideburns, sits next to Kate Capshaw’s Willie Scott at a long banquet table. The main course that arrives is a huge snake that’s sliced open to reveal other live snakes inside.

Also on the menu that night: bugs, eyeball soup and, for dessert, chilled monkey brains.

El-Shenawi spoke “in a British-tinged articulate accent,” his daughter wrote in a lovely 2011 tribute to her father, “and [Spielberg] took note of his eloquent style, [telling him], ‘Ahmed, you are a Shakespearean-type actor.’”

Maharaja's banquet, Raj Singh (ctr) Harrison Ford (left) in 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom'
Ahmed El-Shenawi in white at the table in the “snake surprise” scene from 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

One of six children — four boys and two girls — El-Shenawi had a “very lively family life in Egypt,” Eman El-Shenawi told THR. His father worked as a head chef for Egyptair and five-star hotel restaurants, and “that’s where my dad’s love for Christmas and Western holidays started,” she said.

With a business degree from college, El-Shenawi relocated to London in 1971 and worked for the BBC Arabic Service as an actor on a radio drama series that had a worldwide audience of Arab listeners. He later became a member of the British Actors’ Equity Association.

El-Shenawi also appeared in a 1978 NBC miniseries adaptation of The Thief of Baghdad and on British television in The Professionals, Cannon and Ball, Muck and Brass and Danger: Marmalade at Work before Temple of Doom reached theaters.

His acting career pretty much ended after he needed a stomach-stapling operation to control his weight, his daughter wrote.

“My character as the ‘chubby Arab man’ changed, and the agency would not find as much work for me as it did before when I was big,” he told her. “But I was still thrilled that I could wear a better selection of suits!”

Eman accompanied her father to an Indiana Jones memorabilia event years ago, and he “created an immediate rapport with the fans,” she noted. “And even after almost 30 years since the film was released, they were queuing up to see the man who introduced one of the most gruesome dinner table scenes in cinematic history.”

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