William Claude Rains was an English film and stage actor whose career spanned 46 years. After his American film debut as Dr. Jack Griffin in 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).
William Claude Rains was born on 10 November 1889 in Camberwell, London. His parents were Emily Eliza (née Cox) and the stage actor Frederick William Rains. He lived in the slums of London and in his own words on "the wrong side of the river Thames" Rains was one of twelve children, all but three dying of malnutrition when still infants. His mother took in boarders in order to support the family. According to his daughter, he grew up with "a very serious Cockney accent and a speech impediment" which took the form of a stutter, which caused him to call himself "Willie Wains". His native accent was so strong that his daughter couldn't understand a word he said when he used it to sing old Cockney songs to her or purposely use it to playfully annoy her. Rains left school after the second grade to sell papers so that he could bring the pennies and halfpennies home for his mother. He sang in the Palm Street Church choir which also brought him a few pence to take home.
Due to his father being an actor the young Rains would spend time in theatres and surrounded by actors and stagehands. It was here where he could watch actors up close as well as the day-to-day running of a theatre. Rains made his stage debut at the age of 10 in the play Sweet Nell of Old Drury at the Haymarket Theatre, so that he could run around onstage as part of the production. He then slowly worked his way up in the theatre becoming a call boy (being the one telling actors when they were due on stage) at His Majesty's Theatre to later becoming prompter, stage manager, understudy and then from smaller parts with good reviews to larger, better parts.
Rains decided to first go to America in 1913 due to the opportunities that were being offered in the New York theatres, but with the outbreak of World War I the following year, he returned to England to serve in the London Scottish Regiment, alongside fellow actors Basil Rathbone, Ronald Colman and Herbert Marshall. At one time, he was involved in a gas attack which resulted in his losing 90 percent of the vision in his right 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.
After the war had ended Rains remained in England, where he continued to develop his acting talents. These talents were recognised by Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, the founder of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Tree told Rains that in order to succeed as an actor he would have to get rid of his cockney accent and speech impediment, with this in mind, Tree paid for the elocution books and lessons that Rains needed to help him change his voice, which after practising every day, he did. His daughter, Jessica, when describing her father's voice said "The interesting thing to me was that he became a different person. He became a very elegant man, with a really extraordinary Mid-Atlantic accent. It was his voice, nobody else spoke like that, half American, half English and a little Cockney thrown in." Soon after he became recognised as one of the leading stage actors in London. Aged 29, he played the role of Clarkis in his one (and only) silent film which was a British film titled, Build Thy House (1920).
During his early years, Rains also taught at RADA, where John Gielgud and Charles Laughton were some of his students. In an interview for Turner Classic Movies Gielgud fondly remembered Rains "I learnt a great deal about acting from this gentleman. Claude Rains was one of my teachers at RADA . In fact he was one of the best and most popular teachers there. He was extremely attractive and needless to say, all the girls in my class were hopelessly in love with him. He had piercing dark eyes and a beautifully throaty voice, although he had, like Marlene Dietrich, some trouble with the letter 'R'. He lacked inches and wore lifts to his shoes to increase his height. Stocky but handsome, Rains had broad shoulders and a mop of thick brown hair which he brushed over one eye. But by the time I first met him in the 1920s he was already much in demand as a character actor in London. I found him enormously helpful and encouraging to work with. I was always trying to copy him in my first years as an actor, until I decided to imitate Noël Coward instead."
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. As well as Faulkland in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Rivals, presented at London's Lyric Theatre in 1925, aged 36. Rains returned to New York in 1927 to appear in what would be nearly 20 Broadway roles. 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).
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 many local US TV stations.
Rains remained active as a character actor in the 1950s and 1960s, appearing in films and as a guest in television series. Two of his late 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 CBS's Rawhide, he portrayed Alexander Langford, an attorney in a ghost town, in the episode "Incident of Judgement Day" (1963)
He additionally made several audio recordings, narrating some Bible stories 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.
He acquired the 380-acre (1.5 km2) Stock Grange Farm, built in 1747 in West Bradford Township, Pennsylvania (just outside Coatesville), in 1941, this became one of the "great prides" of his life. Here, he became a "gentleman farmer" and could relax and enjoy farming life with his then wife (Francis) churning the butter, their daughter collecting the eggs with Rains himself, ploughing the fields and cultivating the vegetable garden. He spent much of his time between film takes reading up on agricultural techniques to try when he got home. He sold the farm when his marriage to Propper ended in 1956, the building now, as then, is still referred to by locals as "Rains' Place". Rains spent his final years in Sandwich, New Hampshire.
In his final years, Rains decided to write his memoirs and engaged the help of journalist Jonathan Root to assist him. Rains' declining health delayed their completion and with Root's death in March 1967 the project was never completed. Rains died from an abdominal haemorrhage in Laconia on 30 May 1967, aged 77, his daughter said "And, just like most actors, he died waiting for his agent to call." He was buried at the Red Hill Cemetery in Moultonborough, New Hampshire. He designed his own tombstone which reads "All things once, Are things forever, Soul, once living, lives forever".
In 2010, many of Rains' personal effects were put into an auction at Heritage Auctions, including his 1951 Tony award, rare posters, letters and photographs. Also included in the auction were many volumes of his private leather bound scrapbooks which contained many of his press cuttings and reviews from the beginning of his career. The majority of the items were used to help David J. Skal write his book on Rains An Actor's Voice. In 2011, the ivory military suit (complete with medals) he wore as Captain Renault in Casablanca was put up for auction, when noted actress and film historian Debbie Reynolds sold her collection of Hollywood costumes and memorabilia which she had amassed as a result of the 1970 MGM auction.
Clubs: The Players (New York).
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 was married until her death on 31 December 1964. His only child, Jennifer, was born on 24 January 1938, the daughter of Frances Propper. As an actress, she is known as Jessica Rains.