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Douglas Rain, Shakespearean actor who voiced HAL in ‘Space Odyssey,’ dies at 90

Actor Douglas Rain in 1966, playing the title role of “Henry V” in a production at the Stratford Festival in Canada. (Courtesy of Peter Smith/Stratford Festival)

The film featured a cast of prehistoric apes, scientists investigating a mysterious black monolith on the moon, astronauts bound for Jupiter, and an embryonic “star child” floating above Earth.

But to critics, fans and the 1968 movie’s nominal leading man, actor Keir Dullea, the most compelling character in “2001: A Space Odyssey” was far and away a talking computer, the HAL 9000. Depicted by filmmaker Stanley Kubrick as a camera lens with a glowing red dot – a cycloptic eye that enabled him to read lips – HAL was voiced to chilling effect by Douglas Rain, a Shakespearean actor celebrated as one of the finest classical stage performers in Canada.

Rain was 90 when he died Nov. 11 at a hospital in St. Marys, Ontario, about a dozen miles from Stratford, where he had lived and long performed with the repertory company of the Stratford Festival. The festival announced his death but did not give a precise cause.

In a statement, Stratford artistic director Antoni Cimolino called Rain one of Canadian theater’s “greatest talents and a guiding light in its development,” adding that he “shared many of the same qualities as Kubrick’s iconic creation: precision, strength of steel, enigma and infinite intelligence, as well as a wicked sense of humor.”

A onetime child actor for the radio broadcaster Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Rain studied at Laurence Olivier’s drama school in Britain 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 this June 7, 1979, photo provided by Stratford Festival, Actor Douglas Rain appears as King Henry IV in this scene from The Second Part of Henry IV at Stratford’s Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario. (Robert C Ragsdale/Stratford Festival)

Rain performed at the Shakespearean festival for 32 seasons, settling some two blocks from the theater and erecting a partial model of its thrust stage in his attic, where he practiced 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.

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

When Rain delivered his lines, she added, “it was as if the language and himself and everything just disappeared. There were just ideas and thoughts and complex moments happening inside me. He took away a barrier between me and the writer. These things were happening for the first time, as if no one had ever thought them or said them before, as if they were newly minted.”

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 Queen Elizabeth I and her cousin Mary Queen of Scots.

In a quirk of the stage, Rain also starred several times as Prince Hal, the rebellious protagonist of Shakespeare’s two-part history “Henry IV.” But he became far better known for his more subdued portrayal of HAL, whose servile demeanor and detached, near-monotone voice are sometimes credited with informing the personas of Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri.

Rain’s HAL has become the default reference, not just for the voice, but also for the humanesque qualities of what a sentient machine’s personality should be,” Gerry Flahive, a writer and producer, wrote in an April account of HAL’s origins for the New York Times.

In “2001: A Space Odyssey,” HAL was charged with overseeing the success of a mission to Jupiter, where the crew of Discovery One is sent to investigate an unusual radio signal. Fearing that the crew will prevent the mission from being carried out, he murders three scientists who are being kept in hibernation, then severs the oxygen hose of a fourth crew member during a spacewalk.

“Open the pod bay doors, HAL,” the last surviving astronaut, Dave Bowman (Dullea), says while trapped outside the ship. “I’m sorry, Dave,” HAL responds. “I’m afraid I can’t do that. … This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.”

Rain was far from Kubrick’s first choice to play HAL. Devised by Kubrick and his fellow screenwriter, Arthur C. Clarke, the character was originally envisioned for an actress – Kubrick’s notes mention Joan Baez and Barbra Streisand as possibilities – before Kubrick settled on a man, casting Bronx-born character actor Martin Balsam.

About that same time, Kubrick hired Rain to narrate a science-heavy prologue for the film. The segment, ultimately cut, was apparently inspired by Kubrick’s love of “Universe” (1960), a short educational film narrated by Rain, who recalled that it was made using table-tennis balls and with a tomato playing the sun.

Months into filming, when Kubrick decided that Balsam “sounded a little bit too colloquially American,” he asked Rain to give it a shot, later telling critic Joseph Gelmis that Rain “had the kind of bland Mid-Atlantic accent we felt was right for the part.” In fact, the accent was Standard Canadian English.

Although some early critics said “2001” was too long and too slow, the movie has acquired the reputation of a science-fiction masterpiece, with Rain’s performance often singled out for praise. His character was ranked 13th on the American Film Institute’s list of greatest movie villains, ahead of the shark from “Jaws” and the Nazi commandant Amon Goeth from “Schindler’s List.”

Rain played HAL again in a sequel, “2010: The Year We Made Contact” (1984), written and directed by Peter Hyams, and parodied the part as an evil computer in the Woody Allen comedy “Sleeper” (1973). But he resisted efforts to commercialize his performance, declining an invitation to provide the voice for an Apple commercial that aired during the 1999 Super Bowl.

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, Day said.

“He’d be changed before anyone else could think of being changed,” she 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 programs – with his cap down over this eyes so people wouldn’t know it was him.”

Douglas James Rain was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on May 9, 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 8. 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 Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in Britain 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 an interview with the Times this year, Rain said he completed his “2001” recordings in about 10 hours, sitting a few feet from Kubrick at an MGM lot near London. At one point, Kubrick had him sing “Daisy Bell” – the love song that HAL croaks out before being disconnected – about 50 times, in varying tempos and pitches. Kubrick went with the first take.

“If you could have been a ghost at the recording you would have thought it was a load of rubbish,” Rain said. Alas, he apparently never got the chance to see otherwise. Although it had been 50 years since “2001” was released, he told the Times he had never seen the film.

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