A child performer who later trained at the Old Vic in Britain, Douglas Rain was one of Canada’s most accomplished Shakespearean actors, a mainstay at the Stratford Festival, where he had been part of the inaugural season in 1953.
However, despite decades of stage work in roles ranging from Iago to Shylock, he was more broadly known for his one significant movie part, a role in which he is not even seen.
To filmgoers around the world, Mr. Rain is associated with the voice of HAL 9000, the malevolent spaceship computer in Stanley Kubrick’s science-fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Mr. Rain died Sunday of natural causes at St. Marys Hospital, near Stratford, the festival said. He was 90.
“Canadian theatre has lost one of its greatest talents and a guiding light in its development,” Stratford artistic director Antoni Cimolino said in a statement.
He added that “Douglas shared many of the same qualities as Mr. Kubrick’s iconic creation: precision, strength of steel, enigma and infinite intelligence, as well as a wicked sense of humour.”
Mr. Kubrick had joked that, after using Mr. Rain only as an off-screen voice, he should try next to cast him in a non-speaking part.
But it was Mr. Rain’s command of his voice that was the foundation of his art.
“It may be helping your career as an actor to be taught movement, but if you haven’t got around to understanding the importance of voice, you are betrayed,” he told the Globe theatre critic Herbert Whittaker in a 1975 interview.
In Kubrick’s film, that voice, unhurried and even-toned, acquires a sinister allure as the viewer realizes that HAL is a murderous machine.
Two decades later, Anthony Hopkins, playing the serial killer Hannibal Lecter, was inspired by Mr. Rain’s performance. He told the magazine Empire that he created Lecter as “as a combination of Katharine Hepburn, Truman Capote and HAL from 2001.”
Reserved and used to playing kings and princes on stage, Mr. Rain rarely spoke about his role as HAL.
Other actors who shared the stage with him at Stratford, such as Christopher Plummer or Bruno Gerussi, became celebrities of the big or small screen.
Mr. Rain, however, didn’t seek the limelight and seemed ambivalent about fame.
“Star personalities tend to open up like sunflowers as they emerge into the limelight; Mr. Rain remains a rather belligerent bud,” Mr. Whittaker, wrote in 1959.
“… An actor’s actor he is, undoubtedly. His confrères respect his ability, his technique, his style.”
He was born in Winnipeg on May 9, 1928. His parents were both from Glasgow. His father, James, was a rail-yard switchman, and his mother, Mary, a nurse.
At an early age, his parents enrolled him at a studio run by two elocutionists, Jean Campbell and Mary Pearl Rice.
By the time he was seven, Mr. Rain worked as an actor and public speaker, appearing at church concerts, Kiwanis Club dinners and in radio dramas, where he had to stand on a crate to reach the microphone.
“Douglas has already made a name for himself as a talented young actor,” the Winnipeg Free Press reported in 1936.
While enrolled at the University of Manitoba, he spent summers at the Banff School of Fine Arts, where he met his first wife, Lois Shaw.
He left for Britain in 1950 to study at the Old Vic School under the influential French director Michel Saint-Denis.
During his final year at the Old Vic, he received a newspaper clipping from his parents about the projected opening of a Shakespeare festival in Stratford.
He returned to Canada and requested a meeting with Stratford’s artistic director, Tyrone Guthrie. When he showed up, the director asked him to perform something.
“It was an arrow to the heart,” he recalled in a 1998 Toronto Star interview, “because I had asked and been told that I wouldn’t have to audition.”
He managed to remember a speech from Henry V and was hired.
The inaugural season opened with a production of Richard III, with Alec Guinness in the title role.
Mr. Rain was the understudy for Mr. Guinness. During one rehearsal, Mr. Guthrie told Mr. Guinness to sit and watch Mr. Rain play his part.
“Guthrie may have been testing me – I don’t know,” Mr. Rain told The Globe in 1977. “But I tried to oblige by imitating Guinness as precisely as I remembered. … I must have done it either very badly or very well, because when I finished, Guinness picked up a piece of two-by-four and started to chase me around the stage.”
Mr. Whittaker, the Globe critic, called the July 13 Stratford Festival opening “the most exciting night in the history of the Canadian theatre.”
That evening, Mr. Rain played two small roles, including that of Tyrrel. “Douglas Rain scored with the thoughtful account of his murder of the two princes,” Mr. Whittaker wrote.
In the following years, Mr. Rain would divide his time between Stratford in the summer and television work in the winter.
On television, he often played roles in period pieces. On stage, under the directorship of Michael Langham, he progressed to more substantial roles at Stratford, playing Iago, Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part I, and Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII.
He also did voice work. One film he narrated was Universe, a 1960 National Film Board short about the planets and the galaxy.
When Mr. Kubrick began production of 2001, the famously obsessive director watched every other film he could find about space. The NFB short impressed him. According to his biographer, Vincent LoBrutto, Mr. Kubrick wanted to use Mr. Rain as the narrator for his film’s opening segment but dropped the idea.
Mr. Kubrick had initially picked English actor Nigel Davenport to be the voice of HAL, but then decided he didn’t want the computer to have a British accent, so he hired American actor Martin Balsam. The Bronx-born Mr. Balsam didn’t sound right either, so he settled on Mr. Rain.
“Martin just sounded a little bit too colloquially American, whereas Rain had the kind of bland mid-Atlantic accent we felt was right for the part,” Mr. Kubrick said in an interview in Joseph Gelmis’s book The Film Director as Superstar.
In November 1967, Mr. Rain flew to London for a weekend. Over two days, he spent about 10 hours in a post-production studio, recording the part.
Mr. Rain read his lines without having seen the full screenplay or any footage of the film, Mr. LoBrutto’s book said.
He was still in the dark after the movie premiered in April 1968, and the Stratford Festival started getting calls from foreign media. A Toronto Star article from May 1968 reported that Mr. Rain was “consumed with curiosity to find out what he has done which has provoked so much interest in him.”
He remained loyal to the stage, however, heading back to Britain to play the lead in the hit Hadrian VII.
He continued his association with Stratford until 1998, with a short hiatus in the early 1980s when Mr. Rain and his second wife, Martha Henry, clashed with the festival’s board of directors.
Despite his iconic role as HAL, today’s computerized voices are usually female.
“Amazon, Apple and others did extensive research before they launched their voice assistants, and female voices always tested much higher against male voices,” Tim Bajarin, a Silicon Valley analyst and president of Creative Strategies Inc., said in an interview.
“They do offer the option of a male voice, but a female voice is always the default because of this research.”
Mr. Rain is survived by his two sons, David and Adam (with his first wife, the late Ms. Shaw) and his daughter, Emma (with his second wife, Ms. Henry).