El Hedi ben Salem was Rainer Werner Fassbinder's boyfriend from 1971 to 1974, though he also had a wife and five children in Morocco. During this period, he played several roles in Fassbinder's films. He is best known for his role of Ali in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. While intoxicated, Salem seriously injured three people by stabbing. He flew to France, where he robbed a jewelry store. He was arrested and convicted. In 1976 he died in prison after a soccer game from cardiac arrest.
Fassbinder dedicated his last film Querelle (1982) to him. Some publications erroneously report 1982 as the year of El Hedi ben Salem's death.