On television, he was known for his role as the mob boss Don Keshav Kalsi in the 1990s series “Junoon” (“Obsession”), which, he told the newspaper The Hindu in 2005, was “by far my best role in front of the camera.” In 2008 he was given the Padma Shri, one of India’s highest civilian honors, for his contribution to the arts. And earlier that decade he gave himself the role he always wanted — a native Indian — when he performed a solo play in Urdu called “Maulana Azad,” in which he portrayed the Indian freedom fighter of that name.
Thomas Beach Alter was born on June 22, 1950, in Mussoorie, Uttar Pradesh (now Uttarakhand), in northern India. He and his older brother and sister were the third generation of Alters to live in India; his grandparents were Presbyterian missionaries who had moved from Ohio. His parents, James Payne Alter and the former Barbara Beach, were also missionaries.
Mr. Alter graduated from the Woodstock School, an international boarding school near the Himalayas, in 1968. He then attended Yale, but dropped out after a year and a half to move back to India.
He taught at a school in Jagadhri, a city in the northern India state of Haryana, and spent his evenings at the cinema with friends watching Hindi movies. It was Rajesh Khanna‘s performance in the 1969 drama “Aradhna” (“Worship”), about a woman who is forced to give up her son at birth, that inspired him to become an actor. (Mr. Khanna played the boy’s father and later the boy himself as an adult.)
“I knew instantly that this was, above all, what I wanted to do,” he told The Times. “I wanted to act and act in Hindi movies.”
He attended the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, which had just opened, and graduated in 1974. His first major role was as a customs officer trying to break up an Indian drug ring in Ramanand Sagar’s “Charas” (1976).
In 1978 he married Carol Evans, who survives him. Besides her and their daughter, he is survived by their son, Jamie; his brother, John; his sister, Marty Chen; and a grandson.
In addition to acting, Mr. Alter wrote for several newspapers and published three books.
After he finished acting school, he decided to renounce his American passport to prove he was serious about his career in India.
“You have to be truly committed to this country,” he told The Times. “Otherwise you don’t get respect or acceptability.”
But he still faced questions about his heritage, and he publicly lamented having to answer them.
In 2013, at a news media event for the mini-series “Samvidhaan: The Making of the Constitution of India,” in which he portrayed Maulana Azad, a journalist asked him how he was able to speak Hindi so well.
“Friend, for 40 years I’ve been answering this question,” he replied angrily. “For 40 years I’ve told everyone that I was born here.”