Kumar Pallana, 94; went from yoga to film

Kumar Pallana (right, in front of Danny Glover) with other cast members of “The Royal Tenenbaums,” a 2001 film by Wes Anderson. Mr. Pallana also appeared in “Rushmore.”
James Hamilton/Touchstone Pictures
Kumar Pallana (right, in front of Danny Glover) with other cast members of “The Royal Tenenbaums,” a 2001 film by Wes Anderson. Mr. Pallana also appeared in “Rushmore.”

NEW YORK — Kumar Pallana — a plate spinner turned Texas yoga instructor turned, in his late 70s and long beyond, sought-after character actor in films by Wes Anderson, Steven Spielberg, and others — died Thursday at his home in Oakland, Calif. He was 94.

His son, Dipak, confirmed the death.

Mr. Pallana, who had lived in the United States since the 1940s, was first seen on screen as an extra in American westerns of the early 1950s, playing, as he later described it, “a different sort of Indian.”


He also spent decades on the vaudeville circuit as Kumar of India, spinning plates (as many as 16 at a time, some of them on sticks) and performing feats of dexterity that included plucking a handkerchief off the ground with his teeth while riding a bicycle.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

He played Las Vegas, where his shows were attended by Sammy Davis Jr. and Harry Belafonte. In the 1950s and ’60s, he performed on television shows, including “Captain Kangaroo” and “The Mickey Mouse Club,” before heading to Dallas and a life of teaching yoga.

There, three decades later, Mr. Pallana was discovered by Anderson and Owen Wilson, not long out of college and collaborating on the screenplay of their first film, “Bottle Rocket.”

“He had a certain wise serenity and tremendous charisma,” Anderson wrote in an e-mail on Monday. “But he was also inclined to do rope tricks and laugh wildly, hysterically, at extreme length. And like everybody else, we just loved him instantly. We had never met anyone even remotely like him.”

Elfin and white-haired, Mr. Pallana made his true cinematic debut in the feature-length version of “Bottle Rocket,” released in 1996. (The film had originated two years earlier as a 13-minute short.) Appearing alongside Wilson and his brother Luke, he played a member of a gang of hapless thieves.


He went on to appear in Anderson’s pictures “Rushmore” (1998), as the school caretaker Mr. Littlejeans; “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001), as Pagoda, Gene Hackman’s curmudgeonly valet; and “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007), as a passenger on the title train.

Although Mr. Pallana’s roles were typically small, his screen presence was anything but: His lines, delivered in understated Indian-inflected tones, crackled with cantankerous roguery. Critics agreed that he quietly stole every scene he was in.

In 2004, the Los Angeles Times described him as “possessing perhaps the greatest deadpan expression since Buster Keaton.”

Mr. Pallana’s credits include more than a dozen pictures by other directors, notably “The Terminal” (2004), by Spielberg. In that film, he played the dyspeptic airport janitor Gupta, who likes nothing so much as seeing travelers slip on his freshly mopped floors.

“This,” Gupta declares, “is the only fun I have.”


The third of nine children, Kumar Vallabhdas Pallana was born in Indore, in central India, a son of anautomobile dealer. As a boy, he dreamed of a performing career.

Then in 1931, Kumar’s older brother, who was active in the struggle for Indian independence, was arrested and jailed for several years. The British seized the family’s home and the elder Pallana’s business.

Kumar left school at about 13 and soon afterward left for Bombay, thinking he could become a Bollywood film star simply by walking through the studio gates. At the gates, however, he was repeatedly turned away.

He wound up in Calcutta, where he trained as an acrobat, and for the next few years he traveled India by foot and bicycle as an itinerant performer. In the mid-1930s he joined his brother, newly released from jail, in Africa, where he honed his act across the continent.

Mr. Pallana arrived in the United States in 1946 and spent the next 20 years touring until his wife put her foot down and the family settled in Texas. There, he started a yoga studio.

“Texas is called cowboy country,” Mr. Pallana said in 2004. “Nobody knew what yoga and yogurt were, at least 30 years ago.”

In 1992, Dipak Pallana opened a cafe, Cosmic Cup, on the ground floor of his father’s studio. Its regular customers included Anderson and Owen Wilson, and before long a star was born.

Mr. Pallana’s marriage to Ranjana Jethwa ended in divorce. Besides his son, who has also had small roles in Anderson’s pictures, he leaves a daughter and a grandson.