Veteran film, television and theatre actor and Padma Shri Tom Alter has died aged 67. The renowned actor and one-time sports writer and author had been battling stage four skin cancer.
Alter acted in over 300 movies apart from numerous TV shows, most famously as the gangster Keshav Kalsi in the hit soap opera Junoon which ran for a record five years during the 1990s. In addition to acting, Alter also ventured into direction and was a sports journalist in the 80s and 90s. He was the first person to interview Sachin Tendulkar for TV when the cricketer was yet to debut for India. Alter has written three books, one non-fiction and two fiction, and in 2008 was awarded the prestigious Padma Shri by the Indian government in recognition for his services to the field of arts and cinema.
A statement released on behalf of his family said: “It is with sadness we announce the death of Tom Alter, actor, writer, director, Padma Shri, and our dear husband and father. Tom passed away Friday night at home with his family and close family members in attendance. We ask for their privacy to be respected at this time.”
Born in the hill station of Mussoorie in 1950, Alter was a third-generation American in India who studied at Woodstock School in the Himalayas and then briefly at Yale University in the USA, before returning to India in the early 70s. In 1972, he was one of three men – the others being Benjamin Gilani and Phunsok Ladakhi – chosen from over 800 applicants across north India to be enrolled in at the prestigious Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, where two years later he graduated with a gold medal diploma in acting.
Alter’s first release was Ramanand Sagar’s Charas in 1976, in which he played the role of superstar Dharmendra’s boss, a CID official. Among his notable roles during the first decade of his acting career were Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977), Shyam Benega’s Junoon (1979), Manoj Kumar’s magnum opus Kranti (1981) and Raj Kapoor’s Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985). Other notable directors he worked with during the 70s and 80s were V Shantaram, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Manmohan Desai, Subhash Ghai, Chetan Anand – who gave him his first break in the Dev Anand-starrer Saheb Bahadur – and Vidhu Vinod Chopra, who gave him the pivotal role of the gangster Musa in the critically acclaimed hit Parinda.
In the 90s, Alter was seen in many films, prominent among them Mahesh Bhatt’s Aashiqui, Junoon and Gumrah, Ketan Mehta’s Sardar and Priyadarshan’s Kala Pani. During this time, he also acted in regional cinema – Bengali, Assamese, Telegu, Tamil and Kumaoni films. Among his foreign films are Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi and One Night with the King, in which he acted opposite his idol, the legendary Peter O’Toole.
On TV, Alter’s leading work came in Junoon, Zabaan Sambhalke, Jugalbandi, Bharat EK Khoj, Ghutan, Shaktimaan, Captain Vyom, Mere Ghar Aana Zindagi and Yahaan Ke Hum Sikandar. Most recently, he was seen in a pivotal role in the ongoing serial Rishton Ka Chakravyuh on Star Plus. At the time of his death, Alter had approximately 16 unreleased films lined up as well as a web series by Eros Now titled Smoke.
Throughout his cinematic and television career, Alter remained busy with theatre, having co-founded Motley Productions with Naseeruddin Shah and Gilani in 1979. His prominent stage work includes the two-and-a-half-hour-long solo play in Urdu, ‘Maulana’, ‘Babur ke Aulaad’, ‘Lal Qile ka Aakhri Mushaira’, ‘Ghalib ke Khat’, ‘Trisanga’, ‘Teesveen Shatabdi’, Copenhagen’ and the theatrical reproduction of William Dalrymple’s ‘City of Djinns’.
In early 2017, Alter enacted a festival of his various plays in Hindi, English, Hindustani and Urdu titled titled ‘Jashn-e-Maazi: The Play of History’ which featured 19 of his portrayals and adaptations of leading historical figures such as Maulana Azad, Mirza Ghalib, Manto, Saahir Ludhianvi, Rabindranath Tagore, Bahadur Shah Zafar, Alfred Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi.
He is survived by his wife Carol, son Jamie, and daughter Afshaan.