Did You Ever Have a Touch to Lose?

I interviewed Owen Wilson about seven years ago and even though it had ZERO reason to do with why I was asking him questions, my main goal was to bring up Kumar Pallana and Bottle Rocket. Then for about 90 seconds of the phone call (or "phoner" if you're a publicist), Wilson morphed into Dignan after the robbery went to shit and he was riding the freight elevator with Kumar. He recited the script exactly as it played out here, while I pretended I was an elderly Indian man/hyperventilated.

I was lucky enough in 2001 or 2002 to interview Kumar when I was doing NFL Picks for McSweeney's. If you don't want to scroll down that, the interview is here. And yes, Kumar did have a touch to lose. Jesus. That was just tailor-made. R.I.P. to one of the greatest of all time. For real.


It’s the week before Christmas and once again, it would be a pity to do anything on the NFL, except predict the winners. Instead I’d rather focus on Kumar Pallana. He’s the 82 year-old Indian sideman in all the Wes Anderson movies. You can see him now as Pagoda in The Royal Tenenbaums. A few years ago, Anderson met him in Dallas at a Coffee Shop that Pallana owned, and subsequently cast him in all three of his movies. Pallana has traveled the world as an entertainer, but he’s probably most commonly remembered as Mr. Littlejeans in 1999’s Rushmore. I liked him best as the bumbling burglar in Bottle Rocket who hid in a walk-in freezer because he got scared. This interview is way better than reading about the Seahawks, except sometimes Kumar has a way of not answering the questions. In any case, he’s a really great entertainer and very cool for doing this.

Kumar: Hello. Good morning, man.

Me: Nice to talk to you.

Kumar: Nice to talk to you, too.

Me: Are you in Oakland now?

Kumar: Yeah, I’m in Oakland, yeah. I bought a house. Me and my daughter and my son. Three of us live together. My son worked also in all this movie (Wes Anderson films). Little parts. Dipak Pallana. He did Bottle Rocket and he did also Rushmore, the opening, he was a teacher there. And this movie (The Royal Tenenbaums) he’s a doctor, checking Gene Hackman in the hospital. How do you like the movie?

Me: I love the movie.

Kumar: Oh, I’m glad to hear it.

Me: I’ve loved you since Bottle Rocket. I think you’re a great actor.

Kumar: Yeah, well a lot of times you don’t get the opportunity to find a good agent or a little clique. Any business you need a clique or something, you know. So, I did not get that. But Wes is so nice to me.

Me: Did you act before you met Wes?

Kumar: Yeah, I’ve been doing stage work for many years. I worked in the nightclubs and theaters. I worked in Las Vegas also I worked in the Paris, ‘cause you know, the Paris. And I worked in a lot of places as a juggler. I was balancing, I do a little, you know in the show business when they had the vaudeville times? I did a lot of vaudeville time also in the 1950s, I’m talking about, you know. In the United States. When TV started in ’47, in New York, I was doing a lot of shows in 1947 and 48. And the war just finished till 1946.

Me: And you—

Kumar: And then, I was just start getting more jobs in the clubs. In those days many of the actors, Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Belafonte, they were just like you and me. They were just coming up.

Me: Were you born in the United States or in India?

Kumar: I was born in India. In the center province, and then I studied a little bit in Bombay and Calcutta. And the same thing — you don’t get anything unless you know the right people.

Me: When did you go to Dallas?

Kumar: Before I went to Dallas, I was in Las Vegas and Paris and France and Germany, and I met in Africa an Indian girl. I married her and then we came to…after my marriage, I was doing work in Paris and France and Germany and England a little bit. Madrid. Barcelona. And then I did camp shows (military) in Germany and then when I get to have papers, then we came (to U.S.) in ’64. She get the paper, I get my American passport in 1959. When we came in ’64, I was doing shows in New York, and then we came to Los Angeles, and my apartment in New York, it was very hard to find apartment in New York, I was on the east side, 97th street, near the Third Avenue. And somebody, while I was visiting in Los Angeles, somebody put a fire in the apartment. They burned it down.

Me: Did you lose everything you owned?

Kumar: Yeah. Everything I lost. In 1965. That thing changed my whole life. Then when I went there, the landlord tells me, “We have 40, 50 apartments, we don’t insure anybody.” And I was helping my family while I was doing the shows, you know, send some money to the home in Africa and India. I called my brother, he was doing the tire business. When I called him, they all have the idea that America, just because I am sending the money, in those days not too many Indian was here. They get the idea that I get on the tree, the dollar, and I can just pick it off and send it. They think that America is rich, so no problems for me. But I lost everything. And then he said, “Why don’t go to the court and sue them and this one and that one?” And I was really annoyed. And then I said the heck with it. And I was lucky that I had American friends. They said, “Don’t worry about it,” and they tried to help me out.

Me: Do you want to work on other people’s movies besides Wes’s or do you just want to work with him?

Kumar: No, no, no, no. If I get the opportunity, I’m looking for an agent if I can find one. I don’t have the agent.

Me: Have people been interested in hiring you?

Kumar: Well, people are talking. I only believe it when I get the part.

Me: What about commercials?

Kumar: I’m looking also for commercials, but I do not get a chance to meet the right person. Because there was not too much publicity about me, now, everybody calls and asking me, so maybe now my turn comes.

Me: Are you doing a lot of interviews?

Kumar: A lot of people calling me. I think that Indian paper from New York, they called me, and they want to write about me. All this time I was here and never did any Indian paper have mentions about me. They have some honky-tonky, or good actor or bad actor and they write about them, but suddenly they get the interest. I think they’re going to write a good article. I was so pleased because finally they wake up. People need the people. I don’t care whoever it is. Especially the artist or the guy who are good dancers, musicians. There are a lot of good boxers, lot of good sports — they don’t get a chance. I was struggling so many times, I don’t get nowhere.

Me: Now you’re making good money.

Kumar: Yeah. I don’t need the money now. [laughs] I make my share. My children are in good shape, they work in the computer business. Both of them. My son acts also. He is very sharp. He’s very good. He also don’t get a chance, otherwise. He’s ten times better than me. He’s very good. I don’t push him.

Me: You were an acrobat? Did you do any dangerous acts? Like tightrope or anything?

Kumar: No, no, no. I never did the tightrope. I did the balancing act. My specialty was in the nightclubs and cabaret. The production numbers. I did the plates, [spinning] the comedy. People love the comedy. I was very happy, because you have to work hard. Whatever you do. It don’t make no difference. Any business, if you work hard, you’re going to get the good success. I was spinning ten to fifteen plates, and I make the comedy, rushing back and forth. I worked with Pinky Lee in Los Angeles. And the Super Circus in Chicago. And I was getting on everybody. Every show. The Bozo show.

Me: Do you still spin plates?

Kumar: Yeah. I did when Wes Anderson finished this (The Royal Tenenbaums), I entertained them. I was a one-man show. When they have the party after the finish of the movie. They usually have, you know. And also they have the intervals, they have the half movie, and then when they finish it. That time I did my juggling act and I did my plate act, too.

Me: What do you do with your free time now?

Kumar: I practice because I know now that I’m going to get some good work.

Me: Do you practice acting?

Kumar: Well, acting for me is a very easy job. Believe me. Because I did a one-man show in Africa and during the war times I did USO camp shows. I did them in Africa and Europe. In Casablanca.

Me: It sounds like you spent a lot of time in Africa?

Kumar: No, no. Only when I was doing the shows. Africa is not like here, you know, where you do one or two shows then get the hell out of there, that’s the way it is. I was very lucky in Africa, in the Indian community. Before they got independent. They have Indians in every city, 10 to 20,000. They don’t have, in those days, any agent, or anything. If anybody comes from India, then they put the shows together. I was all around. I sing, I do my own little play, broken English, couple of jokes.

Me: Did you get to meet a lot of people in Las Vegas when you were there? Like Sinatra or anybody?

Kumar: Yeah, I meet Frank Sinatra, all of the people. I have a bunch of pictures. When you see the album, you will be surprised. I worked with a lot of people. Donald O’Connor was a very good friend of mine. I have many pictures of different people which I worked with. Before, I had fantastic albums of work in Africa and all those were burned up. Some people, when you talk, they can understand you, that you have the experience. And your experiences become the great knowledge and wisdom, so, in my work the people keep asking me to do the show. In Las Vegas, my plate act was so fantastic, I don’t like to brag about it, but only the way I can say it. In London, I was in the Latin Quarter for six-month contract. Every day, the tourist come. I was making the fuss. I say, “I don’t want to go. Why I have to go outside?” Paris was the greatest thing. I worked at Crazy Horse. Paris is really old, hundred-year old theaters. I worked there doing plates. I juggled and spin. I did the broken English and people loved it.

Me: What is the broken English?

Kumar: Well, like “Thank you, you all.” I don’t speak good English, I “excuse you.” I had my punch line that people liked, “Sometime I does it. Sometimes, I doesn’t does it.” Those kind of lines. But if I tell you on the phone, you don’t going to laugh. But when you have the crowd, and you do a good trick and if you miss it, that’s the time you use it. I did the shows in so many place. I worked in a stadium in Istanbul. 30,000 people. 20,000 people every damn day. I was there nine months. Beirut, I’m talking about the ‘50s, my friend. Those days Beirut was like a small, little Paris. People used to go there. I worked in Johannesburg, Capetown, places they don’t go to many artists. It’s too far, and they have visa problems, they don’t have the agent. But I was able to talk to the community and do the shows in the school and do a lot of charity shows. Half money I get, half money they get. Hustles and bustles.

Me: Would you bring your own plates along? Or would they have them there for you?

Kumar: No. no. I had the restaurant supplies. The heavy plate. Especially in Europe and USA or Canada if you drop it and it goes, a little piece? They can sue you, you know? I buy the special plate, when it drops you don’t get the small, small piece. You get two or three pieces and you can pick it up and throw it. You learn lot of things, and not only just juggling the plate, but you learn the trick of the trade. And I used to practice, because when I come to America, many of those acts they just have the nice tuxedos and tell a couple jokes, and that’s why the vaudeville died. They don’t practice. They do the same damn jokes over and over. We are the foreigner and we have to survive. Because first we have the barrier of the language. Second, we don’t know anybody. We don’t have any sweetheart that can, you know. So we have to start from the bottom and it was very hard for every act. Not myself, I have many good acts.

Me: How did you and Wes meet each other?

Kumar: I had the restaurant (Cosmic Cup in Dallas), I had the yoga center. I was very successful in yoga-I was the head of it. Nowadays, yoga has become known. But when you’re talking 1970’s and ‘50s and ’60s nobody knows. I was giving the demonstration in those days. I was not only just doing the acting or singing the classical raga, which very few people does it, now you can see a lot of people come from India and they play the good sitar and the good Indian instrument, and good classical music. There are so many nowadays. I practice every day, because I don’t want to lose my touch. I sing Indian songs. In this country, so many jazz musicians, so many great people, who the hell I am that I can, you know? So, more attention to my plate and my, I go in the library and look up some jokes and I twist them out and I make my own way. The worst part for any human is if they don’t have a good education.