Puri was born in Ambala, and spent early part of his life in Sanaur, Punjab, India. He graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India. He is also an alumnus of the 1973 batch of National School of Drama where Naseeruddin Shah was a co-student.
Puri has worked in numerous Indian films and also in many films produced in the United Kingdom and the United States. He made his film debut in the 1976 film Ghashiram Kotwal, a film based on a Marathi play of the same name. He has recently claimed that he is paid “peanuts” for his best work. He has collaborated in many films with Amrish Puri as well as Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil in art films such as Bhavani Bhavai (1980), Sadgati (1981), Ardh Satya (1982), Mirch Masala (1986) and Dharavi (1992).
In the 1980s Puri also made two highly successful Punjabi films called Chan Pardesi (1980) and Long Da Lishkara (1986). After nineteen years, Puri returned to Punjabi cinema the film Baghi (2005). He recently starred in another Punjabi film, Gurdas Mann’s Yaariyan (2008). He was critically acclaimed for his performances in many unconventional roles such as a victimized tribal in Aakrosh (1980) (a film in which he spoke not a single line of dialogue, save for during flash-back sequences), Jimmy’s manager in Disco Dancer (1982), a police inspector in Ardh Satya (1982), where he revolts against life-long social, cultural and political persecution and for which he got the National Film Award for Best Actor and as the leader of a cell of Sikh militants in Maachis (1996).
In the mid 1990s, Puri diversified to play character roles in mainstream Hindi cinema, where his roles are more tuned to mass audiences than film critics. He also became known internationally for starring in many British films such as My Son the Fanatic (1997), East is East (1999) and The Parole Officer (2001). As well as these he appeared in Hollywood films including City of Joy (1992), opposite Patrick Swayze; Wolf (1994) alongside Jack Nicholson and The Ghost and the Darkness (1996) opposite Val Kilmer. Puri also had a cameo in the international highly acclaimed film Gandhi (1982, directed by Richard Attenborough), based on the life of Mahatma Gandhi. In 2005 he starred in the film, The Hangman. In 2007, he appeared as General Zia-Ul-Haq in Charlie Wilson’s War, which stars Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.
He has also worked in Hindi TV serials like Kakkaji Kaheen (1988) (roughly meaning “Uncle says”) as a pan-chewing ‘Kakkaji’, which was a parody on politicians and Mr. Yogi (1989) as a suave ‘Sutradhaar’ who enjoys pulling the protagonist’s leg. These two serials underlined Om Puri’s versatility as a comedian. He has also competently essayed comic roles with equal brilliance in Hindi films like Chachi 420 (1997), Hera Pheri (2000), Chor Machaye Shor (2002) and Malamaal Weekly (2006).
On 6 January 2017, Puri died at the age of 66, after having a heart attack at his residence in Andheri, Mumbai.