Stilled Voices

I saw today that Douglas Rain, the Canadian actor who voiced HAL, the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, passed away at the age of 90. I actually knew something about him at one time, I think because I knew a guy in college, who liked films, with the same name. It stuck. The voice of HAL.

But I know nothing about him, really, and nothing I’ve read sheds much light, other than that he was a working actor for most of his life, apparently very good. And this is what most people, and certainly history, will remember him for.

Like they’ll remember Dick Tufeld, the former radio announcer who began narration jobs in the 1960s and did quite a lot of them, but his most famous will always be as the Robot in the Irwin Allen show Lost in Space.



A friend of mine, Ellen McLain, has achieved quite a bit of fame as the voice of the computer, GLaDOS, in the video game Portal, as well as other games (she also voiced the computer in the film Pacific Rim). Ellen played my wife in Winning Dad, although I’ve known her for decades as she’s also a talented singer and worked with my wife for years.

Bill Irwin

Bill Irwin

And then the other night, watching Interstellar with John, I noticed the voice of one of the robots, CASE, had quite a bit of personality, including a hint of sarcasm that was well done. Off and on, I suspected the voice of Bob Einstein (brother of Albert Brooks and best known from his Super Dave Osborne character), but the next day I looked it up. It was Bill Irwin, a pretty famous fellow, and not a surprise at all. I felt pretty good about recognizing someone with chops behind the metal.

So, robots. Not really the point.

The other night, while we were eating dinner at a Mexican restaurant, I ended up watching a soccer game from somewhere in South America, since we were in the bar and the screen was immediately in front of me.

The sound was off, and I’m sure was in Spanish anyway, but at one point they showed someone in the stands, one of those very long shots, pushing the telephoto into near-pixilation range. We’ve seen it a million times at sporting events, the celebrity shot, the man or woman in the stands or audience or somewhere, trying to appear inconspicuous. This guy looked like that.

Except, of course, I had no idea who he was. Obviously he was a famous somebody, but nobody as far as I was concerned, and for a while I entertained myself with wondering what celebrities would look like if they weren’t celebrities. I mean, if the camera panned a Lakers game, and landed on Jack Nicholson, but Nicholson ended up being a plumber (but still a Lakers fan), what would we think?

Nothing. I mean, this is easy. We wouldn’t think anything. There’s nothing inherent about celebrity other than its existence itself. It was just fun to think of these famous people as ordinary human beings with nothing about their appearance that suggests otherwise.

But now I’m thinking about Mr. Rain up there, and his long acting career and the headline from his obituary, the headline he had to always know would be there. As did Dick Tufeld, probably.

As does Ellen McLain, I suppose, although she’s still working and probably not giving up on the chance of something more substantial for her resume.

It’s just interesting to me, thinking about my unknown Mexican or Argentinean at the soccer game, and the vagaries of celebrity. We’ll remember Jack Nicholson for lots of things. The first line of his obit will be about his career, not part of it. Not a tiny bit of it, a moment. A single part. A voice.

It just made me think about the rest of us. We don’t think about the first line of our obituaries, because why would we? Someone has died, people die. She had children and a job, a spouse and parents. He served in a war. She taught school.

And as I read Douglas Rain’s obituary, leading off with what had to be a few days of work for him, probably completely removed from the making of the film, doing his part in a recording studio, I found myself scrolling for the essence. That’s what I’m talking about. What’s the importance sentence?

In Rain’s case, he appears to have been much loved. And today I’m thinking that’s famous enough. No JumboTron needed.

Chuck Sigars1 Comment