In 1969, when the Rajesh Khanna phenomenon was sweeping the country, Tom Alter, a 19 year old schoolteacher in Jagadhri, Haryana was so impressed by him that he decided to become an actor. He enrolled himself in the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, and when he emerged, became the actor playing British nationals in Hindi cinema and TV serials for over four decades.
Of American descent, Tom Alter’s grandparents had moved to India from Ohio in the early years of the twentieth century. Following the Partition, they settled in Rajpur. His father was a history and English teacher, and insisted that his children learn Hindi and Urdu. Alter spent his childhood in several places such as Mussoorie, Allahabad and Rajpur. When he finished his schooling from the Woodstock School in Landour, he went to Yale University. Not very interested in pursuing his education any further, he soon returned to India and started working as a sports teacher in Haryana.
At FTII, Tom Alter studied acting under the guidance of Roshan Taneja. Naseeruddin Shah and Benjamin Gilani were his contemporaries in the university, and the three of them later went on to form their own theatre group, Motley Productions, in 1977. Shortly after that, Alter made his debut in the Dharmendra-Hema Malini starrerCharas (1976). Through the seventies and eighties, he received a steady stream of offers and worked with established names in the industry likeDev Anand, Satyajit Ray, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Manoj Kumar. His roles in films such as Shatranj Ke Khilari(1977), Naukri(1978), Hum Kisi Se Kam Nahin (1977), Sahib Bahadur (1977) and Kranti (1981) ensured his firm footing in the Hindi film industry. His proficiency in Urdu and Hindi meant that he was often the first choice to play villainous foreigners in films as well. He appeared as an Indian character onscreen for the first time in the 1985 release Ram Teri Ganga Maili.
Despite being typecast in the initial stages of his career, Alter managed to build a wide repertoire in films, theatre and television. His presence in television serials like Zabaan Sambhalke, Shaktimaan and Junoon made him a household name. A man of varied talents, Alter also wrote columns on cricket for several reputed publications including Outlook, Sportsweek and Firstpost, and was the first to interview Sachin Tendulkar on video. Alter has to his credit three published books on sports, The Longest Race, Rerun at Rialto and The Best in the World.
Tom Alter passed away at the age of 67 on September 29 2017 in Mumbai, following a protracted battle with skin cancer.