James David Graham Niven was an English actor and novelist. His many roles included Squadron Leader Peter Carter in A Matter of Life and Death, Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days, and Sir Charles Lytton, (“the Phantom”) in The Pink Panther. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in Separate Tables (1958).
Born in London, Niven attended Heatherdown Preparatory School and Stowe before gaining a place at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. After Sandhurst, he joined the British Army and was gazetted a second lieutenant in the Highland Light Infantry. Having developed an interest in acting, he left the Highland Light Infantry, travelled to Hollywood, and had several minor roles in film. He first appeared as an extra in the British film There Goes the Bride (1932). From there, he hired an agent and had several small parts in films from 1933 to 1935, including a non-speaking part in MGM’s Mutiny on the Bounty. This brought him to wider attention within the film industry and he was spotted by Samuel Goldwyn. Upon the outbreak of the Second World War, Niven returned to Britain and rejoined the army, being recommissioned as a lieutenant.
Niven resumed his acting career after his demobilisation, and was voted the second-most popular British actor in the 1945 Popularity Poll of British film stars. He appeared in A Matter of Life and Death (1946), The Bishop’s Wife (1947), and Enchantment (1948), all of which received critical acclaim. Niven later appeared in The Elusive Pimpernel (1950), The Toast of New Orleans (1950), Happy Go Lovely (1951), Happy Ever After (1954) and Carrington V.C. (1955) before scoring a big success as Phileas Fogg in Michael Todd’s production of Around the World in 80 Days (1956). Niven appeared in nearly a hundred films, and many shows for television. He also began writing books, with considerable commercial success. In 1982 he appeared in Blake Edwards’ final “Pink Panther” films Trail of the Pink Panther and Curse of the Pink Panther, reprising his role as Sir Charles Lytton.
James David Graham Niven was born in Belgrave Mansions, London, to William Edward Graham Niven (1878–1915) and his wife, Henrietta Julia (née Degacher) Niven. He was named David for his birth on St. David’s Day (1 March). Niven often claimed that he was born in Kirriemuir, in the Scottish county of Angus in 1909, but his birth certificate shows this was not the case.
Henrietta was of French and British ancestry. She was born in Wales, the daughter of army officer William Degacher (1841–1879) by his marriage to Julia Caroline Smith, the daughter of Lieutenant General James Webber Smith. Niven’s grandfather William Degacher was killed in the Battle of Isandlwana (1879), during the Zulu War. Born William Hitchcock, he and his brother Henry had followed the lead of their father, Walter Henry Hitchcock, in assuming their mother’s maiden name of Degacher in 1874.
William Niven, David’s father, was of Scottish descent; his paternal grandfather, David Graham Niven, (1811–1884) was from St. Martin’s, a village in Perthshire. William served in the Berkshire Yeomanry in the First World War and was killed during the Gallipoli Campaign on 21 August 1915. He was buried in Green Hill Cemetery, Turkey, in the Special Memorial Section in Plot F. 10.
Niven’s mother remarried, to Sir Thomas Comyn-Platt, in London in 1917. Graham Lord, in Niv: The Authorised Biography of David Niven, suggested that Comyn-Platt and Mrs. Niven had been having an affair for some time before her husband’s death, and that Sir Thomas may well have been David Niven’s biological father, a supposition which has some support from her children. A reviewer of Lord’s book stated that Lord’s photographic evidence showing a strong physical resemblance between Niven and Comyn-Platt “would appear to confirm these theories, though photographs can often be misleading.”
Education and army service
English private schools at the time of Niven’s boyhood were noted for their strict and sometimes brutal discipline. Niven suffered many instances of corporal punishment owing to his inclination for pranks, which finally led to his expulsion from Heatherdown Preparatory School at the age of 10½. This ended his chances for Eton College, a significant blow to his family. After failing to pass the naval entrance exam because of his difficulty with maths, Niven attended Stowe School, a newly created public school led by headmaster J.F. Roxburgh, who was unlike any of Niven’s previous headmasters. Thoughtful and kind, he addressed the boys by their first names, allowed them bicycles, and encouraged and nurtured their personal interests. Niven later wrote, “How he did this, I shall never know, but he made every single boy at that school feel that what he said and what he did were of real importance to the headmaster.” He attended the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, graduating in 1930 with a commission as a second lieutenant in the British Army.
He did well at Sandhurst, which gave him the “officer and gentleman” bearing that was to be his trademark. He requested assignment to the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders or the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment), then jokingly wrote on the form, as his third choice, “anything but the Highland Light Infantry” (because the HLI wore tartan trews rather than kilts). He was assigned to the HLI, and his comment was known in the regiment. Thus, Niven did not enjoy his time in the army. He served with the HLI for two years in Malta and then for a few months in Dover. In Malta, he became friends with Roy Urquhart, future commander of the British 1st Airborne Division.
Niven grew tired of the peacetime army. Though promoted to lieutenant on 1 January 1933, he saw no opportunity for further advancement. His ultimate decision to resign came after a lengthy lecture on machine guns, which was interfering with his plans for dinner with a particularly attractive young lady. At the end of the lecture, the speaker (a major general) asked if there were any questions. Showing the typical rebelliousness of his early years, Niven asked, “Could you tell me the time, sir? I have to catch a train.”
After being placed under close-arrest for this act of insubordination, Niven finished a bottle of whisky with the officer who was guarding him: Rhoddy Rose (later Colonel R.L.C. Rose, DSO, MC). With Rose’s assistance, Niven was allowed to escape from a first-floor window. He then headed for America. While crossing the Atlantic, Niven resigned his commission by telegram on 6 September 1933. Niven then moved to New York City, where he began an unsuccessful career in whisky sales, after which he had a stint in horse rodeo promotion in Atlantic City. After detours to Bermuda and Cuba, he arrived in Hollywood in 1934.
Early film career
When Niven presented himself at Central Casting, he learned that he needed a work permit to reside and work in the U.S. This meant that Niven had to leave the US, so he went to Mexico, where he worked as a “gun-man”, cleaning and polishing the rifles of visiting American hunters. He received his resident alien visa from the American consulate when his birth certificate arrived from Britain. He returned to the United States and was accepted by Central Casting as “Anglo-Saxon Type No. 2,008.”
His role in Mutiny on the Bounty brought him to the attention of independent film producer Samuel Goldwyn, who signed him to a contract and established his career. Niven appeared in 19 films in the next four years. He had supporting roles in several major films—Rose-Marie (1936), Dodsworth (1936), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)—and leading roles in The Dawn Patrol (1938), Three Blind Mice (1938) and Wuthering Heights (1939), playing opposite such stars as Errol Flynn, Loretta Young and Laurence Olivier. In 1939 he co-starred with Ginger Rogers in the RKO comedy Bachelor Mother and starred as the eponymous gentleman safe-cracker in Raffles.
Niven joined what became known as the Hollywood Raj, a group of British actors in Hollywood which included Rex Harrison, Boris Karloff, Stan Laurel, Basil Rathbone, Ronald Colman, Leslie Howard, and C. Aubrey Smith. According to his autobiography, Errol Flynn and he were firm friends and rented Rosalind Russell’s house at 601 North Linden Drive as a bachelor pad.
Second World War
After Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, Niven returned home and rejoined the British Army. He was alone among British stars in Hollywood in doing so; the British Embassy advised most actors to stay. Niven was recommissioned as a lieutenant into the Rifle Brigade (Prince Consort’s Own) on 25 February 1940, and was assigned to a motor training battalion. He wanted something more exciting, however, and transferred into the Commandos. He was assigned to a training base at Inverailort House in the Western Highlands. Niven later claimed credit for bringing future Major General Sir Robert E. Laycock to the Commandos. Niven commanded “A” Squadron GHQ Liaison Regiment, better known as “Phantom”. He worked with the Army Film Unit. He acted in two films made during the war, The First of the Few (1942) and The Way Ahead (1944). Both were made with a view to winning support for the British war effort, especially in the United States. Niven’s Film Unit work included a small part in the deception operation that used minor actor M.E. Clifton James to impersonate General Sir Bernard Montgomery. During his work with the Film Unit, Peter Ustinov, though one of the script-writers, had to pose as Niven’s batman. (Ustinov also acted in The Way Ahead.) Niven explained in his autobiography that there was no military way that he, as a lieutenant-colonel, and Ustinov, who was only a private, could associate, other than as an officer and his subordinate, hence their strange “act”. Ustinov later appeared with Niven in Death on the Nile (1978).
Niven took part in the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944, although he was sent to France several days after D-Day. He served in the “Phantom Signals Unit,” which located and reported enemy positions, and kept rear commanders informed on changing battle lines. Niven was posted at one time to Chilham in Kent. He remained close-mouthed about the war, despite public interest in celebrities in combat and a reputation for storytelling. He once said:
I will, however, tell you just one thing about the war, my first story and my last. I was asked by some American friends to search out the grave of their son near Bastogne. I found it where they told me I would, but it was among 27,000 others, and I told myself that here, Niven, were 27,000 reasons why you should keep your mouth shut after the war.
He had particular scorn for those newspaper columnists covering the war who typed out self-glorifying and excessively florid prose about their meagre wartime experiences. Niven stated, “Anyone who says a bullet sings past, hums past, flies, pings, or whines past, has never heard one—they go crack!” He gave a few details of his war experience in his autobiography, The Moon’s a Balloon: his private conversations with Winston Churchill, the bombing of London, and what it was like entering Germany with the occupation forces. Niven first met Churchill at a dinner party in February 1940. Churchill singled him out from the crowd and stated, “Young man, you did a fine thing to give up your film career to fight for your country. Mark you, had you not done so − it would have been despicable.”
A few stories have surfaced. About to lead his men into action, Niven eased their nervousness by telling them, “Look, you chaps only have to do this once. But I’ll have to do it all over again in Hollywood with Errol Flynn!” Asked by suspicious American sentries during the Battle of the Bulge who had won the World Series in 1943, he answered, “Haven’t the foggiest idea … but I did co-star with Ginger Rogers in Bachelor Mother!” On another occasion, asked how he felt about serving with the British Army in Europe, he allegedly said, “Well on the whole, I would rather be tickling Ginger Rogers’ tits.”
Niven ended the war as a lieutenant-colonel. On his return to Hollywood after the war, he received the Legion of Merit, an American military decoration. Presented by Eisenhower himself, it honoured Niven’s work in setting up the BBC Allied Expeditionary Forces Programme, a radio news and entertainment station for the Allied forces.
During this period, Niven was largely barred from the Hollywood studios. Between 1951 and 1956, he made 11 films, two of which were MGM productions and the rest were low-budget British or independent productions. However, Niven won a Golden Globe Award for his work in The Moon Is Blue (1953), produced and directed by Otto Preminger. In 1955, Cornel Lucas photographed Niven while filming at the Rank Film Studio in Denham, Buckinghamshire. A limited edition of British postage stamps was produced using one of Lucas’s images taken during this portrait sitting. Niven worked in television. He appeared several times on various short-drama shows, and was one of the “four stars” of the dramatic anthology series Four Star Playhouse, appearing in 33 episodes. The show was produced by Four Star Television, which was co-owned and founded by Niven, Dick Powell, and Charles Boyer. The show ended in 1955, but Four Star TV became a highly successful TV production company.
Niven enjoyed success in 1956, when he starred as Phileas Fogg in producer Michael Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days. He won the 1958 Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Major Pollock in Separate Tables, his only nomination for an Oscar. Appearing on-screen for only 23 minutes in the film, this was the briefest performance ever to win a Best Actor Oscar, until Anthony Hopkins win for the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs, which is a little over 16 minutes. He was also a co-host of the 30th, 31st, and 46th Academy Awards ceremonies. After Niven had won the Academy Award, Goldwyn called with an invitation to his home. In Goldwyn’s drawing room, Niven noticed a picture of himself in uniform which he had sent to Goldwyn from Britain during the Second World War. In happier times with Goldwyn, he had observed this same picture sitting on Goldwyn’s piano. Now years later, the picture was still in exactly the same spot. As he was looking at the picture, Goldwyn’s wife Frances said, “Sam never took it down.”
With an Academy Award to his credit, Niven’s career continued to thrive. In 1959, he became the host of his own TV drama series, The David Niven Show, which ran for 13 episodes that summer. He subsequently appeared in another 30 films, including The Guns of Navarone (1961) The Pink Panther (1963), Murder by Death (1976), Death on the Nile (1978), and The Sea Wolves (1980).
In 1964, Boyer and he appeared in the Four Star series The Rogues. Niven played Alexander ‘Alec’ Fleming, one of a family of retired con-artists who now fleece villains in the interests of justice. This was his only recurring role on television. The Rogues ran for only one season, but won a Golden Globe award. In 1965, he starred in Where the Spies Are. In 1967, he appeared as James Bond 007 in Casino Royale. Niven had been Bond creator Ian Fleming’s first choice to play Bond in Dr. No. Casino Royale co-producer Charles K. Feldman said later that Fleming had written the book with Niven in mind, and therefore had sent a copy to Niven. Niven was the only James Bond actor mentioned by name in the text of a Fleming novel. In You Only Live Twice (chapter 14), the pearl diver Kissy Suzuki refers to Niven as “the only man she liked in Hollywood”, and the only person who “treated her honourably” there.
While Niven was co-hosting the 46th Annual Oscars ceremony, a naked man appeared behind him, “streaking” across the stage. Niven responded “Isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”
In 1974, he hosted David Niven’s World for London Weekend Television, which profiled contemporary adventurers such as hang gliders, motorcyclists, and mountain climbers: it ran for 21 episodes. In 1975, he narrated The Remarkable Rocket, a short animation based on a story by Oscar Wilde. In 1979, he appeared in Escape to Athena, which was produced by his son David, Jr. In July 1982, Blake Edwards brought Niven back for cameo appearances in two final “Pink Panther” films (Trail of the Pink Panther and Curse of the Pink Panther), reprising his role as Sir Charles Lytton. By this time, Niven was having serious health problems. When the raw footage was reviewed, his voice was inaudible, and his lines had to be dubbed by Rich Little. Niven only learned of it from a newspaper report. This was his last film appearance.
Niven wrote four books. The first, Round the Rugged Rocks, (published simultaneously in the US under the title “Once Over Lightly”) was a novel that appeared in 1951 and was forgotten almost at once. In 1971, he published his autobiography, The Moon’s a Balloon, which was well received, selling over five million copies. He followed this with Bring On the Empty Horses in 1975, a collection of entertaining reminiscences from Hollywood’s “Golden Age” in the 1930s and ’40s. It now appears that Niven recounted many incidents from a first-person perspective that actually happened to other people, especially Cary Grant, which he borrowed and embroidered. In 1981 Niven published a second and much more successful novel, Go Slowly, Come Back Quickly, which was set during and after the Second World War, and which drew on his experiences during the war and in Hollywood. He was working on a third novel at the time of his death.
While on leave in 1940, Niven met Primula “Primmie” Susan Rollo (18 February 1918, London – 21 May 1946), the daughter of London lawyer William H.C. Rollo. After a whirlwind romance, they married on 16 September. A son, David, Jr., was born in December 1942 and a second son, James Graham Niven on 6 November 1945. Primmie died at age 28, only six weeks after the family moved to the U.S. She fractured her skull after an accidental fall in the Beverly Hills, California home of Tyrone Power, while playing a game of hide-and-seek. She had walked through a door believing it led to a closet, but instead, it led to a stone staircase to the basement.
In 1948, Niven met Hjördis Paulina Tersmeden (née Genberg, 1919–1997), a divorced Swedish fashion model. He recounted their meeting:
I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life—tall, slim, auburn hair, up-tilted nose, lovely mouth and the most enormous grey eyes I had ever seen. It really happened the way it does when written by the worst lady novelists … I goggled. I had difficulty swallowing and had champagne in my knees.
In 1960, Niven moved to Château-d’Œx near Gstaad in Switzerland for financial reasons, near to close friends in the country including Deborah Kerr, Peter Ustinov, and Noël Coward. Niven’s status as a tax exile in Switzerland is believed to have been one of the reasons why he never received a British honour. Niven divided his time in the 1960s and ’70s between Château-d’Œx and Cap Ferrat on the Côte d’Azur in the south of France.
A 2009 biography of Niven contained assertions, based on information from his widow and a good friend of Niven’s, that he had had an affair with Princess Margaret, twenty years his junior.
Illness and death
In 1980, Niven began experiencing fatigue, muscle weakness, and a warble in his voice. His 1981 interviews on the talk shows of Michael Parkinson and Merv Griffin alarmed family and friends; viewers wondered if Niven had either been drinking or suffered a stroke. He blamed his slightly slurred voice on the shooting schedule on the film he had been making, Better Late Than Never. He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or “Lou Gehrig’s disease” in the US) and motor neurone disease (MND) in the UK, later that year. His final appearance in Hollywood was hosting the 1981 American Film Institute tribute to Fred Astaire.
In February 1983, using a false name to avoid publicity, Niven was hospitalised for 10 days, ostensibly for a digestive problem. Afterwards, he returned to his chalet at Château-d’Œx. His condition continued to decline, but he refused to return to the hospital, and his family supported his decision. He died at his chalet from ALS on 29 July 1983 at age 73, the same day as his The Prisoner of Zenda and A Matter of Life and Death co-star Raymond Massey. He was survived by his four children and his second wife. Niven is buried in Château-d’Œx Cemetery in Château-d’Œx, Switzerland.
A Thanksgiving service for Niven was held at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, on 27 October 1983. The congregation of 1,200 included Prince Michael of Kent, Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, Sir John Mills, Sir Richard Attenborough, Trevor Howard, Sir David Frost, Joanna Lumley, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Lord Olivier.
Biographer Graham Lord wrote, “the biggest wreath, worthy of a Mafia Godfather’s funeral, was delivered from the porters at London’s Heathrow Airport, along with a card that read: ‘To the finest gentleman who ever walked through these halls. He made a porter feel like a king.'”
In 1985, Niven was included in a series of British postage stamps, along with Sir Alfred Hitchcock, Sir Charlie Chaplin, Peter Sellers, and Vivien Leigh, to commemorate “British Film Year”.