He was a Tony Award winning actor and was 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" who was, according to the All-Movie Guide, "at his best when playing cultured villains".
During his lengthy career he was greatly admired by many of his contemporaries such as Bette Davis, Vincent Sherman, Ronald Neame and Albert Dekker, all of whom became close family friends. Rains also inspired many younger actors such as John Gielgud, Charles Laughton and Richard Chamberlain.
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 could not understand a word he said when he used it to sing old Cockney songs to her or purposely used 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 was 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 and later prompter, stage manager, understudy, and then from smaller parts with good reviews to larger, better parts.
Rains decided to 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. Rains eventually shed his accent and speech impediment after practicing every day. 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, a British film titled Build Thy House (1920).
During his early years, Rains also taught at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (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. He also portrayed Faulkland in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Rivals, presented at London's Lyric Theatre in 1925. 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 George 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 the single supporting role in the silent, Build Thy House (1920), Rains came relatively late to film acting and while working for the Theatre Guild, he was offered a screen test with Universal Pictures in 1932. His screen test for A Bill of Divorcement (1932) for a New York representative of RKO was a failure but, according to some accounts, led to him being cast in the title role of James Whale's The Invisible Man (1933) after his screen test and unique voice was inadvertently overheard from the next room. His agent, Harold Freedman, was a family friend of Carl Laemmle, 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. According to Rains' daughter, this was the only of his films he ever saw. He also did not go to see the rushes of the day's filming "because he told me, everytime he went he was horrified by his huge face on the huge screen, that he just never went back again."
Rains signed a long term contract with Warner Bros. on 27 November 1935 with Warner able to exercise the right to loan him to other 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). Roddy McDowall once asked Rains if he had intentionally lampooned Bette Davis in his performance as Prince John, and Rains' only reply was "an enigmatic smile." Rains later revealed to his daughter that he'd enjoyed playing the prince as a homosexual, by using subtle mannerisms. 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 portrayed a corrupt U.S. 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).
In her 1987 memoir, This 'N That, Bette Davis revealed that Rains (with whom she shared the screen four times with in Juarez, Now, Voyager, Mr. Skeffington, and Deception) was her favorite co-star. 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 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.
Jessica Rains remembered her father's work ethic:
He was interested in the process (of film). He loved acting. When he came to California to do a film and I had to "hear him his lines" as he drove me to school every morning, 10 miles. He knew everybody's part. He knew the whole script before he came out (to film). I don't think many people did that.
Bette Davis in an interview with Dick Cavett said about Rains:
Well of course he petrified me, the first time I played with him was in Carlotta (Juarez), and I had to make an entrance [into] the King of France's domain for a rehearsal and he's playing the King of France (Napoleon III) in rehearsal. As all of us "other era people," we don't just run through lines and say "turn the camera", we rehearse beforehand...Anyway Claude and I couldn't and he was the King of France who loathed Carlotta and I was a kid and petrified of Mr Rains, so I thought he hated me, I didn't know he was playing the character. I thought he thinks I just stink! What am I going to do? Eventually we worked together quite a lot and became really great friends, really great friends.
Davis later went on to describe him: "Claude was witty, amusing and beautiful, really beautiful, thoroughly enchanting to be with and brilliant." She also praised his performances: "He was marvelous in Deception and was worth the whole thing as the picture wasn't terribly good, but he was so marvelous and the restaurant scene where he's talking about all the food...brilliant and of course in Skeffington he was absolutely brilliant as the husband, just brilliant."
When interviewed for Turner Classic Movies, Richard Chamberlain said,
Claude Rains has to be considered one of the finest actors of the 20th century. As soon as you hear that marvelous, unmistakable voice of honey mixed with gravel, he becomes instantly recognisable. And that scornful right eyebrow which could freeze an adversary faster than and more effectively than any physical threat. He stood at a mere 5'6", yet his enormous talent and immense stage presence made him a giant among his colleagues. During a stage and film career that spanned six decades, Rains encompassed some of the most memorable and exciting characters ever created by an actor. Villains were a Rains specialty, particularly those of a suave and sarcastic nature and yet when the role called for it; Rains could be remarkably moving and even add a touch of pathos without losing any of his effectiveness.
Chamberlain worked with Rains in what would be his final film, Twilight of Honor. Rains played a retired lawyer acting as a mentor to Chamberlain's character:
He was in his 70s then and in failing health, yet he was charming and totally professional on the set. It was clear to us that he loved practising his craft, he dazzled us all. Claude was an extremely private man, he never discussed his humble beginnings, his six marriages. But get him into a conversation about acting and he opened up with delightful anecdotes and fascinating stories about his long life as a thespian.
One day on the set I mentioned to him that 'Notorious' was one of my favourite films and Claude related with amusement that the filming of a particular scene with Ingrid Bergman, Rains was a very small man and Bergman was quite tall, so in order to shoot them in close up together (in the key scene) the resourceful Alfred Hitchcock had a ramp installed, so as Rains approaches Bergman on camera he appears taller than his co-star. Claude found this ramp business a bit embarrassing and very funny. I got another taste of Claude's witty nature shooting a scene in his final film which he had a long piece of dialogue, generally he had no problem remembering his lines despite getting along in years.
However, there was one particularly long scene shot late at night where he was having a lot of trouble with the dialogue and kept making excuses and finally he paused and said with a sheepish look "Alibi Ike, good old Alibi Ike" ("Alibi Ike" being an expression based on a 1935 film of the same name, in which the lead character has a penchant for making up excuses) –of course in the finished film he played the scene flawlessly, as he always did. Claude Rains truly a class act on and off screen.
Many years later, after Rains had gone to Hollywood and become a well-known film actor, John Gielgud is reputed to have commented, "He was a great influence on me. I don't know what happened to him. I think he failed and went to America." However, Gielgud later went on to recollect a time when he was in New York and in the audience during an event that included a focus on Bette Davis.
A number of clips from many of her most successful films were shown and I was particularly delighted, when, as soon as Claude Rains appeared in the close-up of one of the clips, the whole audience burst into a great wave of applause.
Bette Davis often cited Rains as one of her favourite actors and colleagues. Gielgud commented that he once wrote that "The London stage suffered a great loss when Claude Rains deserted it for motion pictures", but he later went on to say, "but when I see him now on the screen and remember him, I must admit that the London stage's loss was the cinemas gain. And the striking virtuosity that I witnessed as a young actor is now there for audiences everywhere to see for all time. I'm so glad of that."
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.
He acquired the 380-acre (1.5 km2) Stock Grange Farm, built in 1747 in West Bradford Township, Pennsylvania (just outside Coatesville), in 1941. The farm 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.
In 1951, Rains won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play for Darkness at Noon as well as the Delia Austrian Medal for the same production. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor on four occasions: for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Casablanca (1943), Mr. Skeffington (1944) and Notorious (1946). Rains was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 6400 Hollywood Boulevard on February 8, 1960.
In the television series Heroes the character portrayed by Christopher Eccleston does not reveal his real name and uses the alias 'Claude Rains' due to his ability to turn himself, any personal objects he touches, and other people invisible; his alias is an obvious homage to Rains who played The Invisible Man.
Rains starred in multiple plays and productions over the course of his career, playing a variety of leading and supporting parts. As his film career began to flourish, he found less time to perform in the theatre in both England and America.