Kumar Pallana plays an eccentric airport janitor in Steven Spielberg's… (Merrick Morton, DreamWorks…)
Before Wes Anderson directed his first feature film, he'd hang out at an eclectic coffee shop in Dallas where he met a 70-something yoga teacher — Kumar Pallana — who was like a one-man Ed Sullivan variety show. To entertain customers in the cafe owned by his son, Pallana would juggle, do magic tricks and perform a vaudeville staple: plate spinning.
Anderson and his buddy, actor-writer Owen Wilson, made Pallana an offer. "They said they were shooting a movie and 'Are you interested in being in it?'" said Pallana in a 2004 Times interview. "I said 'yes.' They were nice kids."
The movie was "Bottle Rocket," which launched not only Anderson's and Wilson's careers, but that of Pallana, who stole scenes as a bumbling safe cracker. The diminutive Pallana, who spoke with a rich Indian accent, went on to do numerous character parts in films — including three more directed by Anderson and one by Steven Spielberg — and television shows. He continued with his scene-stealing, even when up against big names such as Tom Hanks, Gene Hackman and Bill Murray.
It may have seemed an unlikely second career for a senior-citizen yoga teacher, but Pallana's son, Dipak, said his father already had plenty of experience. "My father had been in show business since he was about 16," Dipak said. "He loved performing, and he did it up until the end."
Kumar Pallana, 94, died Oct. 10 at home in Oakland, where he lived with his son. Dipak said his father, who had been in good health for his age, collapsed while getting ready to go play bridge with friends. In addition to his son, Pallana is survived by a daughter, Sandhya, of Dallas, and a grandson.
As recently as August, Pallana shot a TV pilot in New York, Dipak said, and was looking forward to more work. Asked during a 2004 interview with Backstage West what he wanted of his career, he answered, "I want more job. I want to die entertaining."
Pallana was born Dec. 23, 1918, in the city of Indore in central India. His father eventually became a car dealer and the family prospered until Pallana's brother was arrested for aiding in the fight against British colonial rule.
"My father lost his business," Pallana said in The Times interview. "Our house was locked up and we had to leave." Pallana dropped out of high school and eventually made his way to Bombay with the aim of being a actor, but he couldn't make it past the gate of movie studios.
He went to community gymnasiums to train as an acrobat. "Old-timers," he said, showed him how to do balancing tricks, leading to his act in which he would place chairs on bottles and then do routines on top of them. He added numerous other feats as he toured festivals in the area and in Africa.
In 1946 he came to the United States and toured widely as Kumar of India, playing Las Vegas and other resort cities. He also took the act to several television shows, including "The Ed Sullivan Show," "Captain Kangaroo," "The Mickey Mouse Club" and the hyper-kinetic "The Pinky Lee Show."
Pallana again tried the movies, but the only roles he got were as walk-ons in westerns such as "Broken Arrow" with James Stewart. "Oh sure, I got work," he told the Dallas Morning News in 2004, "but I played a different sort of Indian."
The constant traveling put a strain on his marriage, so the family settled in Dallas. "My father had done yoga as a young man — the balancing he did was an extension of that — and he started teaching yoga," Dipak said. Pallana opened a yoga studio in 1966, long before the wide acceptance of the practice. "He used to say people didn't know the difference between yoga and yogurt," his son said.
Settling down in one city did not ultimately save the marriage. Dipak's parents divorced in 1979.
After graduating from college, Dipak started his cafe, the Cosmic Cup, and his father taught yoga on the upper floor. The coffee shop was also a venue for local performers, including Pallana.
After "Bottle Rocket," Anderson used Pallana in his next effort, "Rushmore" in 1998, in which he played a school groundskeeper who delivered the key line, "Best play ever, man."
Probably Pallana's most memorable part in an Anderson film was as Pagoda, Gene Hackman's valet, in the 2001 "The Royal Tenenbaums." Pallana also played a small role as an old man on a train in the Anderson film mostly set in India, the 2007 "The Darjeeling Limited."
Spielberg cast him as an eccentric airport janitor in "The Terminal" (2004) that starred Hanks. Pallana, at the suggestion of the star, juggled rings in that film.
Pallana, who often played a comically quiet character on screen, was known to speak energetically and rapidly when recalling his past. And he was always ready to entertain. "Even if it was just a small group, he would do some magic, tell jokes, spin some plates," Dipak said. Just like when he was Kumar of India, the main goal even in movies was to entertain.
"To make the people happy, to forget their problems," Pallana told the Oakland Tribune in 2008. "Then, to me, I'm doing my job.
"But to act is a God gift."