R.I.P. Douglas Rain, the voice of HAL 9000

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    The pod bay doors will remain closed until further notice in his honor. [LINK]


    A pioneer of the Stratford Festival, Douglas Rain, died Sunday at the age of 90 in a hospital just outside the city in which he first established his longtime classical career.

    Rain spent 32 seasons acting at Stratford and was one of the few surviving founding members of the company. But his biggest mark on pop culture surprisingly came through another role: as HAL 9000, the unmistakable voice from the sentient computer in Stanley Kubrick’s film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

    Rain died of natural causes at St. Marys Memorial Hospital outside Stratford, Ont, according to a press release from the Stratford Festival. The Winnipeg-born actor had more than a hundred television and film credits.

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    There are some details from this article, published earlier this year, that I found fascinating. [LINK]

    To play HAL, Kubrick settled on Martin Balsam, who had won the best supporting actor Oscar for “A Thousand Clowns.” Perhaps there was a satisfying echo that appealed to Kubrick — both were from the Bronx and sounded like it. In August 1966, Balsam told a journalist: “I’m not actually seen in the picture at any time, 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.”

    Adam Balsam, the actor’s son, told me that “Kubrick had him record it very realistically and humanly, complete with crying during the scene when HAL’s memory is being removed.”

    Then the director changed his mind. “We had some difficulty deciding exactly what HAL should sound like, and Marty just sounded a little bit too colloquially American,” Kubrick said in the 1969 interview. Mr. Rain recalls Kubrick telling him, “I’m having trouble with what I’ve got in the can. Would you play the computer?”

    Mr. Rain had to quickly fathom and flesh out HAL, recording all of his lines in 10 hours over two days. Kubrick sat “three feet away, explaining the scenes to me and reading all the parts.”

    Kubrick, according to the transcript of the session in his archive at the University of the Arts London, gave Mr. Rain only a few notes of direction, including:

    — “Sound a little more like it’s a peculiar request.”

    — “A little more concerned.”

    — “Just try it closer and more depressed.”

    Though HAL has ice water in his digital veins, he exudes a dry wit and superciliousness that makes me wonder why someone would deliberately program a computer to talk this way. Maybe we should worry about A.I.

    I had never heard of Martin Balsam’s involvement before. Going from what I’ve seen and heard him in, I can’t even imagine the HAL performance that’s described.

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    If you can’t get enough Douglas Rain, watch the short movie “Universe”: https://www.nfb.ca/film/universe/

    Douglas narrates the piece and it is this movie that Kubrick saw and decided to use Douglas as the voice of HAL.

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