William Claude Rains (10 November 1889 – 30 May 1967) was an English stage and film actor whose career spanned 46 years. He was known for many roles in Hollywood films, among them the title role in The Invisible Man (1933), The Wolf Man (1941), a corrupt senator in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Mr. Dryden in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and, perhaps his most notable performance, as Captain Renault in Casablanca (1942).
Rains was born in Camberwell, London. He grew up, according to his daughter, with “a very serious cockney accent and a speech impediment”. His parents were Emily Eliza (Cox) and English stage and film actor Frederick William Rains. The young Rains made his stage debut at 11 in Nell of Old Drury.
His acting talents were recognised by Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, founder of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Tree paid for the elocution lessons Rains needed in order to succeed as an actor. Later, Rains taught at the institution, teaching John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier, among others. Many years later, after he had gone to Hollywood and become a film star, Gielgud was to quip: “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, with fellow actors Basil Rathbone, Ronald Colman and Herbert Marshall. Rains was involved in a gas attack that left him nearly blind in one eye for the rest of his life, by the war’s end he had risen from the rank of Private to Captain.
Rains began his career in the London theatre, having a success in the title role of John Drinkwater’s play Ulysses S. Grant, the follow-up to the playwright’s major hit Abraham Lincoln, and travelled to Broadway in the late 1920s to act in leading roles in such plays as Shaw’s The Apple Cart and in the dramatisations of The Constant Nymph, and Pearl S. Buck’s novel The Good Earth, as a Chinese farmer.
Rains came relatively late to film acting and his first screen test was a failure, but his distinctive voice won him the title role in James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933) when someone accidentally overheard his screen test being played in the next room. The Invisible Man is based on H. G. Wells’ science fiction novel The Invisible Man, published in 1897, as adapted by R. C. Sherriff, Philip Wylie and Preston Sturges. The film was directed by James Whale and starred Claude Rains, in his first American screen appearance, and Gloria Stuart.
Rains portrayed the Invisible Man (Dr. Jack Griffin) mostly only as a disembodied voice. Rains is only shown clearly for a brief time at the end of the film, spending most of his on-screen time covered by bandages. In 2008 The Invisible Man was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Rains’ portrayal of The Invisible Man is considered to be one of the main Universal Monsters and is often listed with the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, The Mummy and Gill-man.
Following The Invisible Man, Universal Studios tried to typecast him in horror films, but he broke free, starting with the gleefully evil role of Prince John in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), then with his Academy Award-nominated performance as the conflicted corrupt US senator in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and followed with probably his most famous role, the flexible French police Captain Renault in Casablanca (1942).
The Wolf Man (1941) written by Curt Siodmak and produced and directed by George Waggner; starred Lon Chaney, Jr. as The Wolf Man, with Claude Rains, Béla Lugosi, and Maria Ouspenskaya. The title character has had a great deal of influence on Hollywood’s depictions of the legend of the werewolf. The film is the second Universal Pictures werewolf movie, preceded six years earlier by the less commercially successful Werewolf of London.
In 1943, Rains played the title character in Universal’s full-colour remake of Phantom of the Opera. Bette Davis named him her favourite co-star, and they made four films together, including Mr. Skeffington and Now, Voyager. Rains became the first actor to receive a million dollar salary, playing Julius Caesar in Gabriel Pascal’s lavish and unsuccessful version of Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra (1945). In 1946, he played a refugee Nazi agent opposite Cary Grant and Casablanca co-star Ingrid Bergman in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious.
Rains remained a popular character actor in the 1950s and 1960s, appearing in many 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). The latter was his final film role.
Rains died from an abdominal haemorrhage in Laconia, New Hampshire, on 30 May 1967 at the age of 77. He is interred in the Red Hill Cemetery, Moultonborough, New Hampshire.