Friday, March 30, 2018

HAL 9000 originally had a Bronx accent

HAL 9000, the seemingly omniscient computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” was the film’s most expressive and emotional figure, and made a lasting impression on our collective imagination. ...

The story of the creation of HAL’s performance — the result of a last-minute collaboration between the idiosyncratic director Stanley Kubrick and the veteran Canadian actor Douglas Rain — has been somewhat lost in the 50 years since the film’s release in April 1968. As has its impact: Artificial intelligence has borrowed from the HAL persona, and now, unwittingly, a slight hint of Canadianness resides in our phones and interactive devices. ...

To Scott Brave, the co-author of “Wired for Speech: How Voice Activates and Advances the Human-Computer Relationship,” HAL 9000 is a mix between a butler and a psychoanalyst. “He has a sense of deference and of detachment,” Mr. Brave said, adding that he saw a ripple effect on, for example, the iPhone’s virtual assistant. “When I listen to something like Siri I feel there is a lot in common.” ...

To play HAL, Kubrick settled on Martin Balsam, who had won the best supporting actor Oscar for “A Thousand Clowns.” Perhaps there was a satisfying echo that appealed to Kubrick — both were from the Bronx and sounded like it. ...

Adam Balsam, the actor’s son, told me that “Kubrick had him record it very realistically and humanly, complete with crying during the scene when HAL’s memory is being removed.”

Then the director changed his mind. “We had some difficulty deciding exactly what HAL should sound like, and Marty just sounded a little bit too colloquially American,” Kubrick said in the 1969 interview. Mr. Rain recalls Kubrick telling him, “I’m having trouble with what I’ve got in the can. Would you play the computer?” ...

The actor hadn’t seen a frame of the film, then still deep in postproduction. He met none of his co-stars, not even Keir Dullea, who played the astronaut David Bowman, HAL’s colleague turned nemesis. ...

Douglas Rain himself has never seen “2001: A Space Odyssey.” For the retired actor who spent decades at the Stratford Festival and turns 90 in May, the performance was simply a job.
--Gerry Flahive, NYT, on the accidental history of how we think computers should speak. HT: EP