Douglas Rain: Canadian stage actor famous as voice of HAL in Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

Despite not appearing in the film, as a leading Shakespearean at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, fans knew where to find him

Harrison Smith
Thursday 22 November 2018 11:38
Rain playing the title role of Henry V in 1966 at the Stratford Festival theatre in Ontario
Rain playing the title role of Henry V in 1966 at the Stratford Festival theatre in Ontario

Depicted by Stanley Kubrick as a camera lens with a glowing red dot – a cycloptic eye with the ability to read lips – the talking computer HAL 9000 stole the show somewhat in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

HAL was voiced to chilling effect by Douglas Rain, the Canadian stage actor who has died aged 90 in Stratford, Ontario – which, like the English city it is named for, is also associated with the Bard and sits on a river called Avon.

A Shakespearean through and through, Rain spent much of his working life there, performing with the Stratford Festival.

Artistic director Antoni Cimolino said Rain shared many of the same qualities as HAL: “Precision, strength of steel, enigma and infinite intelligence, as well as a wicked sense of humour.”

A former child actor for the radio broadcaster Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Rain studied drama in London before returning to Canada in 1953, where he played supporting parts in the Stratford’s inaugural production, Richard III, and served as the understudy for Alec Guinness in the title role in 1953.

Rain performed at the Shakespearean festival for 32 seasons, settling some two blocks from the theatre and erecting a partial model of its thrust stage in his attic, where he practised at night after rehearsals. He described his work as that of a “glorified detective”, a craft in which he was driven to pore over scripts for insight into a character’s background and motivation.

Actor Marion Day, who performed alongside Rain several times, said he likened acting to carpentry: “It was something that was very finely done. You could run your hand over it and not perceive joints.”

Though he spent nearly his entire career in Canada, he was nominated for a Tony Award in 1972 for his supporting role as William Cecil, the wily statesman in Vivat! Vivat Regina!, playwright Robert Bolt’s take on the rivalry between Elizabeth I and her cousin Mary Queen of Scots.

New York Times writer Gerry Flahive noted in April that today’s voices of artificial intelligence, from Siri to Alexa, owe to HAL “the humanesque qualities of what a sentient machine’s personality should be”.

Kubrick and Arthur C Clark had originally wanted a female voice for HAL.

Rain reprised the role in a sequel, 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984), written and directed by Peter Hyams. But he resisted efforts to commercialise his performance, declining an invitation to provide the voice for an Apple commercial that aired during the 1999 Super Bowl in the US.

He also cultivated techniques to avoid attention from fans who asked him to “open the pod bay doors”, creating “a secret ring” for friends who wanted to reach him on his home telephone and devising a quick escape route from the Stratford theatre.

“He’d be changed before anyone else could think of being changed,” Marion Day said, “and go down into the underworld under the stage, go up into a tunnel next to the audience, and leave while they were getting up out of their seats and collecting their programmes – with his cap down over this eyes so people wouldn’t know it was him.”

Douglas James Rain was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in March 1928. His father was a switchman for the Canadian National Railway and his mother was a nurse who encouraged his interest in acting, beginning with an appearance on a CBC radio play when he was eight. Rain later recalled that he had to stand on a wooden crate to reach the microphone.

He graduated from the University of Manitoba in 1950 and studied at the former Old Vic theatre school in London, then run by actor Glen Byam Shaw, before nailing an audition with director Tyrone Guthrie, who brought him to the Stratford. The festival’s early productions were held in a tent, where line readings were sometimes accompanied by cheers from a nearby baseball field.

Rain appeared in Guthrie-directed shows including Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great, which came to Broadway in 1956, and a mask-filled production of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, filmed for wide release in 1957.

He went on to play leading roles in productions of Othello, King John and Henry V, starred opposite Maggie Smith in a 1978 production of Macbeth and appeared as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice in 1996, two years before his final season with the festival.

In addition to his work at Stratford, Rain served for several years as head of the English acting section at the National Theatre School of Canada, and performed at Canadian venues including the National Arts Centre, the Tarragon Theatre and the Shaw Festival.

His marriages to Lois Shaw and Martha Henry, a fellow Stratford performer, ended in divorce. Survivors include two sons from his first marriage, a daughter from his second marriage and a granddaughter.

In March, Rain told the New York Times he had never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Douglas Rain, Canadian actor, born 13 March 1928, died 11 November 2018

© Washington Post

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