Saturday, January 3, 2015

Douglas Rain - The Immortal Voice

The man behind the voice - by which every malevolent piece of self-aware machinery will be for ever measured - is, perhaps not surprisingly, utterly unlike any of the Hals he has played.

Rain at Stratford in 1968.
Born in 1928 in Winnipeg, Canada, Douglas James Rain is a classically trained actor and director, and he was for a long time 'a regular' at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival at Ontario. Aside from being a successful theatre actor, performing all the classics from Shakespeare to Molière, he is noted for his melodic tenor voice and his "elegant perfection". Having had his first encounter with radio acting at the ripe old age of 8, Rain soon found himself studying the stage arts at the then newly reopened Old Vic in London under the tutelage of legendary French theatre actor Michel Saint-Denis, and after returning to Canada working with legends such as Alec Guiness. Venturing forth to become an accomplished and acclaimed stage actor with more than 100 plays on his resumé - and appearances in over 50 TV series and television movies - he has lent his voice to several Academy Award -winning movies. While he has never played a character role in a cinema film, he has one of the most well-known movie lines to his name: "I am sorry, Dave, I am afraid I cannot do that".


Barry Morse, the English Canadian actor who worked for both BBC and CBC remembers Mr. Rain from his early years in CBC's radio theatre. "Dougie Rain has had a great career in Canadian television and theatre," remembers Morse. "But well before that, he worked with us in radio and was one of the youngest in that group of 'repertory' actors. He went on to become quite famous as one of the leading actors in the Shakespeare Company at Stratford, Ontario and also played at the Shaw Festival in Niagara in more recent years." Rain remembers the early years at CBC, as well. His diminutive stature required some arrangements to be made at the studio in order for him to record his performances, but finally they found the right tool for the job. "With the aid," he remembers, "of one of those awful, wooden crates that I had to stand on in order to be in striking distance of the microphone."

"Shakespeare is of course more demanding." - Douglas Rain

Rain 1946.
Right from his earliest years Douglas Rain was destined for the stage. A member of the Winnipeg Sea Cadets, the John Holden Players (previously known as Good Companions), the Good Neighbors' Club, and appearing quite regularly at the Sunshine Revue, Rain - "a little boy with a grown-up manner of self-possession" - was rather well known as a "boy elocutionist / monologist" in Winnipeg by the time has was 13 years old. After graduating from Kelvin High School in 1946 he enrolled at the University of Manitoba, and joined the University of Manitoba Dramatic Society. He also studied acting in Alberta, at the Banff Centre for Continuing Education - before 1970 known as the Banff School of Fine Arts - and received a grant to study abroad. The grant led to a scholarship in 1950 at the Old Vic Theatre School in London for an 'intensive two-year course'.

When the time came for him to focus on acting as a profession Canadian theatre seemed a very closed circuit, and was to some extent semi-amateurish. "I hoped to do something about my craft," he says. To pursue his acting ambitions, Rain had to look for opportunities elsewhere, and the Old Vic in London was precisely the opportunity he was looking for. After graduating from the University of Manitoba his eyes were set on the Big Smoke on the Thames. "When I left Canada in 1950," he says, "there was nothing here."

John Colico, Barry Morse,
and Douglas Rain at the radio.
While he did not initially plan on ever rebounding to Canada, his stay in London did not turn out to be an easy ride. "It was two years' hard work," he says. "The Old Vic wasn't in the best shape then." The two years were a difficult time for the aspiring actor. "I was very depressed by the stagnant atmosphere which pervaded the school," he said, "and all of the English theatre. I felt that England had lost all feeling of the true essence of theatre - perhaps as much as 200 years before - and I was almost ready to leave the theatre altogether." Rain did his best, and managed to soldier on for two years. "But then in 1953 the situation at the Old Vic became appalling, and I was prompted to return by Guthrie's proposed theatre at Stratford, Ontario."

He returned to Canada in 1953 and became one of the founding members of the Stratford Festival Company, spearheaded by a very ambitious director: Tyrone Guthrie. "Guthrie was a theatrical man," Rain remembers. "He couldn't put on a production of Mary Had a Little Lamb without it being the most dynamically theatrical thing you've ever seen."

Canadian theatre has progressed a lot since those early days, and now Rain holds French-Canadians to be among the best audiences to perform for. "With them," he says, "good theatre is as much a family affair as going to church."


Rain in As You Like It, 1959.
On a perhaps unrelated note Rain is not the only Stratford Shakespeare Festival Company alumni to become part of the Odyssey Sequence: William Sylvester - who played Heywood Floyd in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey - and Rain were both part of the company and were presented to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth on July 2, 1959, when the royal couple attended As You Like It. Completely unrelated is the fact that another Canadian science-fiction heavyweight was also part of the Company: USS Enterprise captain Kirk, William Shatner.

Coincidences were seemingly the norm around Kubrick.

The Second HAL

We can read in Arthur C. Clarke's fascinating The Lost Worlds of 2001 that HAL 9000 was initially conceived as a mobile robot. However, Kubrick rightly suspected having HAL roam the space ship at will would mercilessly date both the computer and the movie, thus the ever-present, immobile red eye was chosen instead. This, however, only settled the visual aspect of HAL. The voice was still an unresolved problem. The first drafts of the ship's computer had no HAL at all, instead the central computer was to be named Athena, after the Greek goddess of war and wisdom, and was to have a female voice. This was not to be, and HAL soon got his name and imaginary gender. Due to an unrelated sequence of events, Gary Lockwood's wife Stephanie Powers may technically have been the first HAL, since she rehearsed the lines in the script with Lockwood, who was the first of the astronauts to have his scenes shot. Without having settled on a voice, principal shooting nevertheless began. For the shots with Keir Dullea assistant director Derek Cracknell supplied the lines of HAL. According to Dullea "it was like working with Michael Caine". For Gary Lockwood's scenes, Kubrick himself supplied a lot of the lines. As a result, no one in the studio ever heard HAL's voice.

Douglas Rain with
Maggie Smith in Macbeth.
When Kubrick was looking for the voice of HAL in post-production both actors Nigel Davenport and Martin Balsam tried and failed. "I am not actually seen in the picture at any time," Balsam said, "but I sure create a lot of excitement projecting my voice through that machine. And I'm getting an Academy Award winner price for doing it, too." This was not to be, and before long Rain was hired to record the lines. "I was originally employed," he says, "to do the narration. Stanley had seen the National Film Board movie Universe." Most of the crew on 2001 were familiar with the Canadian production, made by filmmakers Colin Low and Roman Kroitor, all having seen it at the early stages of 2001's production, it being "required watching" at the insistence of Kubrick himself, who had seen the documentary "almost 100 times", "until the sprockets wore out," 2001 special effects supervisor Con Pedersen remembers. The narrator is none other than Douglas Rain.

"It was a very low-budget affair with ping pong balls," Rain later commented on Wally Gentleman's SFX for the movie, "and the sun, as I recall, was played by a tomato - actually, it came off as very impressive on the screen."

Kubrick had initially planned 2001 to be narrated, and that the narration would be supplied by Mr. Rain. "I think he's perfect," Kubrick said, "he's got just the right amount of Winston Hibbler [sic], the intelligent friend next door quality, and yet, I think, an arresting quality." But eventually Kubrick decided narration was too much, too plain. "As more film cut together," Kubrick told Clarke in November of 1967, "it became apparent narration was not needed." After finally excising the narrator altogether, he simply made Rain the voice of HAL, liking his "bland mid-Atlantic accent". The decision was entirely Kubrick's, who had become concerned with the character of the computer. "Kubrick was having," Rain says, "a problem with the computer. 'I think I made him too emotional and too human,' he said. 'I'm having trouble with what I've got in the can. Would you consider doing his voice?' So we decided on the voice of the computer."

Kubrick's notes from the recording session still remain in transcripts in his archives. With instructions such as "try it again a little quicker and more professional", "sound a little more like it's a peculiar request", "even softer and kind of in the depths", "a little more concerned", and "just try it closer and more depressed", Rain managed to create a distinct personality for HAL. According to the audio engineers present, Rain did the recordings with his bare feet resting on a pillow, in order to maintain the required relaxed tone. This added just the right amount of uncommitted anodyne to his voice, precisely the "unctuous, patronizing, neuter quality" Kubrick was looking for. "A cool, soothing voice, " Rain said. The Canadian actor was truly a consummate professional.

Tony Van Bridge and Douglas Rain cool
down after the opening night of Henry V.
The lines were recorded in one quick session at the very tail end of 1967. Rain was at the time tied up in the production of George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario. While working with Arms and the Man, he was at the same time rehearsing for the 1968 summer program at Stratford. To be able to do it, Rain and his recently wed wife Martha Henry commuted by light aircraft between Niagara and Stratford. "We've been led to believe," he said, "that no other Canadian actors have been able ever before to afford such luxury in commuting between two Canadian theatres."

Rain nonetheless managed to take time for what turned out to be a quite brisk New York affair. "It took a day and a half to record," says Rain. "I wrapped up my work in nine and one-half hours."

Though Rain is familiar with the metropolis, and has appeared on several stages in the Big Apple - even being nominated for a Tony Award for his New York performance in Robert Bolt's Vivat! Vivat Regina! - he has no thirst for revisiting the city. The industry part of the entertainment world has absolutely no appeal to him. "I have no desire to return to New York," he says, "which is a complete rat-race and where you are dealing with big business."

The Real Hal
"Above all, be original." - Douglas Rain

Rain as Hal. No, the other Hal.
In a roundabout way, this was not the first time Rain had played HAL. Or rather a Hal. In 1958 as part of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival Company he played Prince Henry in Shakespeare's play Henry IV, Part 1. As stage play aficionados assuredly are aware, in the play Henry, the Prince of Wales is also called, you guessed it, Hal.

Obviously Rain is principally a stage actor. "It is not that I haven't wanted to do movies," he says, "it's just that I've never been approached. People seem to think that when you do classical things you can't do anything else." Even though he is a stage actor, he does not go to see plays himself. "I don't enjoy going to the theater because it is my business," he says. "I find it very difficult to disassociate myself from the techniques and become genuinely involved. The last time I was able to do so, was when I saw [Laurence] Olivier in Osborne's The Entertainer."

Equally at home with classics as well as modern plays, Rain has no particular bias one way or the other. "I have no preference between Shakespeare and modern theatre," he says. "Shakespeare is of course more demanding. You are dealing with fantastic emotional and political thought. But after doing the Bard for six months, I find that I like to do something modern." His forte is, however, the oeuvre of the Stratfordian playwright. "I don't think any playwright can beat Shakespeare," Rain says matter-of-factly. "If you can do Shakespeare," he says, "you can do anything."


Interestingly, a story appeared that Rain had provided the voice for yet another mortiferous computer in Woody Allen's 1973 science fiction comedy Sleeper. A further rather curious story is that Rain apparently even parodied himself as the broken abacus, lending his voice to HAL for a third time in a 1982 special edition of the Merv Griffin Show, adding in the words of Jeff Robbins "immense value" to an otherwise somewhat silly slapstick comedy bit with Rick Moranis playing Merv Griffin. Later it turned out that the story, though certainly interesting, is fatuous. "For those of us that know his voice well," his sons Adam and David Rain disclosed, "this is not Douglas Rain speaking but another actor doing an attempted imitation of HAL’s voice." It's hard to find people who would know a father's voice better than his own children. "We do admit," they added, "it does make a very nice story."


Rain as Shylock 1996.
His execution of the sinister apparatus has become so iconic it has inspired countless actors and actresses in their own pursuits. Sometimes the influence of Rain's handiwork stretches into territories where one would least expect to find it. Surprisingly Anthony Hopkins based his chilling dramatization of Hannibal Lecter on "HAL, the computer in 2001." Unsurprisingly Kevin Spacey did the same for his portrayal of the computer GERTY in the movie Moon.

Rain is not one to rest on prior achievements, and he does not make noise about his olden days. Other professionals in the field of stage acting know this, too. "We have never met, never spoken," says actor Keir Dullea. "Apparently, he doesn't like to talk about 2001 in interviews. He's a classical actor in Canada. This is not a quote, but I'm told that his attitude is, 'I've done Shakespeare and the classics for 50 years, and all anyone wants to talk to me about is a film that I worked on for two days'."

The Fourth HAL

For 2010, director Peter Hyams nevertheless managed to get Mr. Rain to recrudesce his portrayal of the ship's computer. After a "lengthy" search - the Screen Actors Guild and British Equity decided to be unhelpful - Rain was contacted in October 1983, and he agreed, allegedly somewhat reluctantly, to reiterate his role. When 2001 was made, HAL's dialogue was recorded last. For 2010, Hyams wanted to do it the other way around. "I wanted to record all of the HAL dialogue," he explains, "in advance of shooting." Hyams said it first took Rain a while to "get into" the voice of HAL after the 16-year pause. "It just wasn’t right at first, he was just talking like a human being," Hyams recalls. "I said to him 'Say it like you’ve been lobotomized.' When Rain spoke again as HAL, the sound recordist jumped in the air as Rain nailed it. HAL was in the room." Again the recording was a quick, two-day affair. At the end of January 1984, the Canadian actor was in and out of MGM's studios before as much as one second of shooting had been done.

Rain's return was not unmerited. As a testament to the extraordinary sway Rain's portrayal of the computer holds, preview audiences erupted in spontaneous applause when HAL's voice was heard for the first time.

Regardless, it has been said Mr. Rain has "had a not-too-pleasant association with the [2001 & 2010] film(s)". Whether this is due to events associated with the actual productions or whether it is due to the undue weight given his performances is at this point anybody's guess. By all accounts, however, Rain and Kubrick struck up a rather personal and cordial rapport during the recording of 2001. "Kubrick is a charming man," says Rain. "Most courteous to work with." However, Kubrick never showed him a single picture from the movie, and Rain conveyed all of his dialogue the way the director had written it down for him 'without knowing where it fitted in'. He recorded the voice line by line, "with Kubrick sitting four feet across from me, explaining the scenes to me, and reading all the parts", with no visual cues to work with at all.

Rain did not think all too highly of his performance. "If you could have been a ghost at the recording session," Rain recalls, "you would have thought it was a load of rubbish."

"He was a bit secretive about the film," he adds. "I never saw the finished script and I never saw a foot of the shooting." Rain, along with everyone else, saw his own work at the movie theater. "I never saw the film until after it was done," he says. "They were scared stiff of Kubrick. He had control of everything. MGM was frightened, since they hadn't been shown a foot of film."

Post HAL

Rain in 1998.

In 1998 Douglas Rain finally bid farewell to the venue that had made him famous - the Stratford Festival - by playing Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, to universal acclaim. He still had one more performance in him, however. Closing a career lasting more than half a century he took his final bow in 1999 at the Shaw Festival stage in Niagara, after performing his last role as Captain Shotover in George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House.


He has consistently refrained from repeating his HAL performance for frivolous reasons, though he is regularly asked to do so. In 1999, computer company Apple asked Rain to voice a Superbowl ad for the widely feared Y2K bug, but Rain again graciously declined the offer - as he had all previous such offers. "He was an artist," ad director Ken Segall later disparagingly huffed. "And artists don't do ads."

Douglas Rain in 2000.
He is not that enthusiastic about the business side of his craft, nor is he eager to repeat roles. It is the characters that draw him to the stage, and the true spirit of acting is not in repetition but in creation, to give life to words. "All the clues are in the text," he says, "and you must strive to illuminate it, rather than illuminating your virtuosity." Therein lays the essence of his endeavour. "Above all," he says, "be original."

A gentleman at heart, he has always politely declined requests for interviews and comments about both of the movies, and has consequently responded he is "not keen" regarding participation in such events. Having (almost) never broken his silence about the 2001 and 2010 movies, Mr. Rain prefers not to refer to his performances as HAL in any fashion.

His silence should not be taken as dismissive, however. He rarely gives interviews and has never talked about any of his other roles, either. His performance as HAL, while probably his most ubiquitous rendition, is merely one among many. Also remember that endlessly blathering about past work is a rather new phenomenon. In the great tradition of stage acting, roles are performed, not talked about.

Kubrick never talked about HAL, either.

Douglas Rain passed away November 11, 2018.

[PS: As an aside, the fact that Rain had played Hal, the Prince, before he played HAL, the CPU, has sometimes been touted as the genesis of the cracked calculator's name. This is, of course, merely lore, as is the "hearsay that will never die": the interminable "fact" that HAL was christened after IBM, or rather before, one letter removed. Myths. We like them.]

Images copyright©1956-2000 CSTC.

1 comment:

  1. It was nice of the New York Times and POV Magazine to rip off this article without credit. :)

    To wit:

    Next time, guys, give credit where credit is due.