Anyone who has watched the film 2001: A Space Odyssey will never forget the voice of HAL 9000, the computer that was the real star of that film. Douglas Rain, the Shakespearean actor who provided the voice, died on November 11 at the age of 90. That somber, flat, atonal, imperturbable voice, concerned and yet somehow menacing, is etched in the memory and I can recall it easily and immediately. For those who cannot, here is one key scene. (Keir Dullea’s performance is often overlooked. He deserves a lot of credit for his reaction shots to a disembodied voice.)
Xeni Jardin recounts how the voice came about at a time when people realized that computer-generated voices would be the future but did not know what it would sound like.
Initially, director Stanly Kubrick got actor Martin Balsam to play HAL and went through extensive recording sessions with him.
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?”
Kubrick had heard Mr. Rain’s voice in the 1960 documentary “Universe,” a film he watched at least 95 times, according to the actor. “I think he’s perfect,” Kubrick wrote to a colleague in a letter preserved in the director’s archive. “The voice is neither patronizing, nor is it intimidating, nor is it pompous, overly dramatic or actorish. Despite this, it is interesting.”
Kubrik’s faith in Rains is shown by how little direction he needed to give him.
A transcript of the ‘2001’ voice recording session in the Stanley Kubrick archives at the University of the Arts, London shows that Kubrick didn’t give much direction to Rain, just a few brief notes like this:
— “Sound a little more like it’s a peculiar request.”
— “A little more concerned.”
— “Just try it closer and more depressed.”
One of the most memorable performances in film.