William Claude Rains (10 November 1889 – 30 May 1967) was an English actor of stage and screen whose career spanned 46 years. After his American film debut with The Invisible Man (1933) he played in classic films like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), The Wolf Man (1941), Casablanca (1942; as Captain Renault), Notorious (1946), and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). He had been a four-time nominee for the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award, but never won. Rains was considered to be "one of the screen's great character stars" with an extraordinary voice who was, according to the All-Movie Guide, "at his best when playing cultured villains".
Rains began life in Camberwell, London. According to his daughter, he grew up with "a quite serious Cockney accent and a speech impediment". His parents were Emily Eliza (née Cox) and the actor Frederick William Rains. Rains made his stage debut at the age of 11 in the play Nell of Old Drury.
His acting talents were recognised by Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, the founder of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Tree paid for the elocution lessons that Rains needed to succeed as an actor. Later, Rains taught at RADA, where his students included John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier. Many years later, after Rains had gone to Hollywood and become a well-known film actor, Gielgud commented: "He was a great influence on me. I don't know what happened to him. I think he failed and went to America."
Rains served in the First World War in the London Scottish Regiment, alongside fellow actors Basil Rathbone, Ronald Colman and Herbert Marshall. At one time, he had been involved in a gas attack that left him nearly blind in one eye for the rest of his life. By the end of the war, he had risen from the rank of Private to that of Captain.
Rains began his career in London theatre, achieving success in the title role of John Drinkwater's play Ulysses S. Grant, the follow-up to the same playwright's Abraham Lincoln. He moved to Broadway in the late 1920s to act in leading roles in such plays as Bernard Shaw's The Apple Cart and the dramatisations of The Constant Nymph and Pearl S. Buck's novel The Good Earth (as a Chinese farmer).
Although he had played a single supporting role in a silent, Build Thy House (1920), Rains came relatively late to film acting, His screen test for A Bill of Divorcement (1932) for a New York representative of RKO was a failure but, according to a few accounts, led to him being cast in the title role of James Whale's The Invisible Man (1933) after his screen test was inadvertently overheard from the next room. His agent though, Harold Freedman, had a strong connexion with the Laemmle family, who controlled Universal Studios at the time, and Whale himself had been acquainted with Rains in London and was keen to cast him in the role.
Rains signed a long term contract with Warner Bros. on 27 November 1935 with Warner able to exercise the right to loan him to additional studios and Rains having a potential income of up to $750,000 over 7 years. He played the villainous role of Prince John in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Rains later credited the film's co-director Michael Curtiz with teaching him the more understated requirements of film acting, or "what not to do in front of a camera." On loan to Columbia Pictures, he performed the role of the corrupt American senator in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) for which he received his first Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor. For his home studio, Warner Bros, he played the murderer Dr. Alexander Tower in Kings Row (1942) and the cynical police chief Captain Renault in Casablanca (also 1942). On loan again, Rains played the title character in Universal's remake of Phantom of the Opera (1943).
Bette Davis named him her favourite co-star, and they made four films together, including Now, Voyager (1942) and Mr. Skeffington (1944). Rains became the first actor to receive a million-dollar salary, when he portrayed Julius Caesar in a large budget but unsuccessful version of Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), filmed in Britain. Shaw apparently chose him for the part, although Rains intensely disliked Gabriel Pascal, the film's director and producer. He followed it with Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious (1946) as a refugee Nazi agent opposite Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. Back in Britain, he appeared in David Lean's The Passionate Friends (1949).
His only singing and dancing role was in a 1957 television musical version of Robert Browning's The Pied Piper of Hamelin, with Van Johnson as the Piper. The NBC colour special, broadcast as a film rather than a live or videotaped programme, was highly successful with the public. Sold into syndication after its first telecast, it was repeated annually by a large number of local US TV stations.
Rains remained a popular character actor in the 1950s and 1960s, appearing in a large number of films. Two of his well-known later screen roles were as Dryden, a cynical British diplomat in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and King Herod in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), his last film.
In 1963 he portrayed Alexander Langford, an attorney in a ghost town, in the episode "Incident of Judgement Day" on CBS's Rawhide.
He additionally made several audio recordings, narrating a few Bible storeys for children on Capitol Records, and reciting Richard Strauss's setting for narrator and piano of Tennyson's poem Enoch Arden, with the piano solos performed by Glenn Gould. He starred in The Jeffersonian Heritage, a 1952 series of 13 half-hour radio programmes recorded by the National Association of Educational Broadcasters and syndicated for commercial broadcast on a sustaining (i.e., commercial-free) basis.
Rains became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1939. He married six times, and was divorced from the first five of his wives: Isabel Jeans (married 1913–1915); Marie Hemingway (to whom Rains was married for less than a year in 1920); Beatrix Thomson (1924–8 April 1935); Frances Propper (9 April 1935 – 1956); and the classical pianist Agi Jambor (4 November 1959 – 1960). In 1960, he married Rosemary Clark Schrode, to whom he had been married until her death on 31 December 1964. His only child, Jessica Rains, was born to him and Propper on 24 January 1938.
He acquired the 380-acre (1.5 km2) Stock Grange Farm in West Bradford Township, Pennsylvania (just outside Coatesville) in 1941, and spent much of his time between film takes reading up on agricultural techniques. He sold the farm when his marriage to Propper ended in 1956. Rains spent his final years in Sandwich, New Hampshire. He passed away from an abdominal haemorrhage in Laconia on 30 May 1967, aged 77. He had been buried at the Red Hill Cemetery in Moultonborough, New Hampshire.
Claude Rains: An Actor's Voice, a biography by David J. Skal and Rains' daughter Jessica, was published in 2008.
Awards and nominations
In 1951, Rains won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play for Darkness at Noon. He had been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor on four occasions: for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Casablanca (1942), Mr. Skeffington (1944) and Notorious (1946). Rains has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 6400 Hollywood Boulevard.
|1952||Cavalcade of America||Three Words|