My Dear Friend, Tom
My Dear Friend, Tom

Jazz writer Sunil Sampat was a close friend of actor Tom Alter who died of skin cancer yesterday evening. Here is his tribute.

Jazz writer Sunil Sampat was a close friend of actor Tom Alter who died of skin cancer yesterday evening. They bonded over their common love for cricket and cinema. Here is his tribute to a man he had know for a long time. 


It is very hard to say goodbye to a dear friend; Tom Alter was such a man. He was so vital, constantly on the move and never seemed to tire. For such a man to have passed away, stilled by a virulent cancer is not easy to accept. But we should dwell on all his passion for everything he did in life, for he put all his heart into it. His passion and dedication for acting was complete and never driven by money. He learnt and mastered the Urdu language and reveled  in his several roles where he played Mirza Ghalib, Maulana Azad and various others in his chaste Urdu. 


I vividly remember a day a few years ago; it was September 22nd, I remember well, and we had a few friends over for dinner. Tom walked in and asked if he could use our computer to write his thoughts about the Nawab of Pataudi, India’s great cricketer, who had died that day. Tom was very upset at the news and insistent that he do this right away. I feel the same way about Tom- the need to put down my thoughts right away. 


Tom’s love for cricket was extraordinary. He was the first one to interview a young Sachin Tendulkar, just selected then for India’s tour of Pakistan in 1989. In his inimitable way, Tom recalled for me bits of the interview, where he did his own and Tendulkar’s voices. The mimicry was hilarious but the admiration for the confidence Sachin displayed was serious. Tom Alter was a great admirer of Sachin’s. His views on Pataudi were also very clear. According to Tom, Pataudi was the man who took Indian cricket upward and onward from which it has reached it’s present status. He said, Pataudi stood up to fast bowling and to “attitude” from English and Australian players and felt it was this rise in the stature of Indian cricket, the self belief in being equal to any other team, that led to India’s great wins in the West Indies and England. 


Tom also recalled  the 1983 World Cup that India won under Kapil Dev. He and another two friends would go to a friend’s house on Pali Hill and watch the matches. Once India got into the semi finals, they got superstitious and would sit in the same chairs! They all felt vindicated when India finally beat the West Indies at Lords. Tom would imitate actions from the final – of Gordon Greenidge leaving a ball from Balwinder Singh Sandhu and getting bowled. “Well left” he would say. He would also try and show how Kapil Dev ran several yards to take a difficult catch from Viv Richards, which turned the game India’s way. 


Tom loved all forms of cricket except the T-20 variety. He called it Tik-20 and said it would be a threat to cricket because of the fixing and corruption possibilities.


“Sunil, one thing you and I should do is go to England to watch a Test Match or two when India is playing”. Sadly that was not to be.


Tom himself was a fine and dedicated cricketer, a fast and reasonable bowler and a splendid fielder. I once saw him sprint a few yards and take a fine catch at the square leg boundary and he was always happy  to be reminded of that catch.


Tom was also an athlete, a runner, swimmer and bicyclist who participated in triathlons. He also encouraged so many young sports people. Tom also did wonderful, selfless work for many schools and organizations.


Tom’s great strength was his strong moral values and his integrity, of which he was justifiably proud. He was also very proud of being Indian and of his Indian values.


Although he admired Dilip Kumar and a few others from Hindi cinema, Tom was particularly fond of Rajesh Khanna and his acting. He always spoke of the film Anand as being a benchmark for brilliant acting.


Among his own roles, Tom was often typecast as a British officer in India because of his looks. His favourite role? He would cite “Shatranj ke Khiladi” with Saeed Jaffery and Sanjeev Kumar in which he played “an angrez, what else?” as his most satisfying movie. 


Although he had roles in over 300 films, Tom Alter’s passion, or the impression one got from him, was theatre. No role, no setting, no character was too big or too small for him. Whether he acted as God in “When God said Cheers” in a small amphitheater on Carter Road, or did “Trisanga” on the mezzanine floor of my building  or his great solo performance in “Maulana”, as Maulana Azad or anything in between, Tom worked with the same intensity. 


Tom had absolutely no airs of stardom. He never stayed away from the people on the street. Although he was easily recognized and greeted as a known celebrity, he behaved like any ordinary person. I recall one time we were travelling in a taxi to a friend’s wedding in Madh Island. The cabbie said he had to refuel his CNG tank. There was a long queue of taxis ahead of us. Tom got out of the cab and with folded hands requested the other cabbies,”hum Shadi me jaa rahe hain. Thodi jaldi hai. Agar aapki ijaazat ho to hum aage ja sakte hain?” Humility personified.


I had the great pleasure – it was a lot of fun, to do an audio stint with Tom as a kick off for a T-20 Tournament. We were doing mock commentary for a cricket game and the audio piece was used for promotion.


Seeing a facial similarity of Tom’s with American jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, I had told Tom that he would be the perfect person to play the musician if they ever made a movie on him. “Who will make such a film?” he had asked. “Clint Eastwood has made movies of jazz musicians. Maybe he will”. Tom looked excited for a moment and had asked, “yes, but how do we get to Clint Eastwood?” he had asked. I wish I knew.


Now they will have to find a lesser actor for the part.


Farewell Tom. You had a great innings in this world. We were privileged to watch some of it. Now show what you can do in your second innings.

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