Born January 8, 1929 in Malerkotla, Punjab, India, to Shia Muslim parents of "rather good aristocratic Mogul stock," Saeed was the oldest of four children. After a variegated education in Muslim, Hindu and Church of England schools, where he amused his classmates with impressions of movie stars, Jaffrey graduated with honors in English Literature and earned a Masters in history from Allahabad University. He agreed to follow his father's wishes in pursuing a teaching career, but took a few months off before beginning his appointment to travel in Delhi. Friends he met on the train invited him to a coffee house, where he learned All India Radio was hiring English-speaking announcers. He auditioned, was accepted, and embarked on a performing career instead, joining All India Radio and founding an English-language theater troupe in Delhi in 1951.
During his troupe's 1954 performance of The Eagle Has Two Heads, Jaffrey became infatuated with actress Madhur Bahadur. The two traveled to New York City in 1956, where Jaffrey took classes at The Actor's Studio (a classmate was Marilyn Monroe) and later traveled on a Fulbright scholarship to study drama at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Saeed and Madhur married in 1958 and had three daughters, but Jaffrey's relentless womanizing sabotaged their marriage. (Don't cry for Madhur Jaffrey, however - after their divorce she became a celebrated expert in Indian cuisine, writing many cookbooks on the subject.)
After retreating back to London post-divorce, Jaffrey struggled to make ends meet, moonlighting as a sales assistant at Harrods department store while working for BBC's World Service international radio service, where his Urdu, Hindi and English fluency made him valuable. He worked occasionally in British television, but his upwards climb didn't truly begin until he was cast in John Huston's The Man Who Would Be King, starring Michael Caine and Sean Connery. Caine and Jaffrey had become friends when both were cast in The Wilby Conspiracy, and Caine recommended him to Huston. Further roles in Gandhi, My Beautiful Laundrette (for which he received a BAFTA nomination), and TV series like The Jewel in the Crown and Coronation Street cemented his reputation in Britain.
While making inroads in Britain, Jaffrey also had a parallel acting career in Bollywood, begun after his role in Satyajit Ray's The Chess Players. He made more than 100 films in his Indian movie career, often changing costumes and reading the script in a limo transporting him from one movie set to another. Despite this breakneck pace, he still took time to research his roles, including working as a paanwalla (a hawker selling a stimulating herbal chew wrapped in leaves) for 15 days for a role in the romantic comedy Chashme Buddoor. The Guinness Book of World Records recognized him for "Most Appearances in International Films" (18) in 2000.
Jaffrey's final decades showed no sign of slowing down. He married his manager Jennifer Sorrell in 1980, told all of his candid bed-hopping adventures in his autobiography Saeed: An Actor's Journey, and wrote and starred in many radio plays, including the 1997 World Service series "A Suitable Boy" where he performed all 86 voice characters. In 1995 he was awarded an Order of the British Empire, Britain's highest civilian award, and was the first Asian actor to do so. He died in 2015, at age 86.