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David Niven

James David Graham Niven (1 March 1910 – 29 July 1983) was an English Academy Award-winning actor probably best known for his role as the punctuality-obsessed adventurer Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days (1956).


David Niven was born in London, England. He was the son of William Edward Graham Niven and the French/British Henrietta Julia Degacher who, born in Wales, was the daughter of army officer William Degacher (who changed his original name of Hitchcock to his mother's maiden name of Degacher in 1874 ) and Julia Caroline, the daughter of Lieutenant General James Webber Smith. He was named David for his birth on St. David's Day. Although he often claimed to have been born in Kirriemuir, Angus, Scotland in 1909, it was only after his birth certificate was checked following his death that this was found to be incorrect.

His father was killed during the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915 and his mother remarried Sir Thomas Comyn-Platt. In his biography, NIV: The Authorized Biography of David Niven, Graham Lord suggests that Comyn-Platt had been conducting an affair with Niven's mother for some time prior to her husband's death, and that Sir Thomas may well have been Niven's biological father, a supposition not without some support from her children.

Early military service

After attending Stowe as a boy, Niven trained at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, which gave him the "officer and gentleman" bearing that was to be his trademark. Although he had done well at Sandhurst, Niven did not enjoy his time in the regular Army, in part because he was not accepted for the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders on which he had set his heart. He served for two years in Malta and two years in Dover with the Highland Light Infantry. While on Malta, he became acquainted and friendly with Captain Roy Urquhart, who would later lead the British 1st Airborne Division in the ill-fated Operation Market-Garden.

Niven grew tired of the peacetime Army and saw no opportunity for promotion or advancement. As he related in his memoirs, 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 speech, the major general giving the lecture asked if there were any questions. Showing the typical rebelliousness of his early years, Niven stated that he felt compelled to ask, "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 claims to have finished a bottle of whisky with the officer who was guarding him and, with the connivance of the latter, escaped from a first floor window. En route across the Atlantic, Niven sent a telegram resigning his commission. Niven relocated to New York, where he began an unsuccessful career in whisky sales and horse rodeo promotion in Atlantic City. After subsequent detours to Bermuda and Cuba, he finally arrived in Hollywood in the summer of 1934.

Early film career

According to his autobiography, The Moon's a Balloon, when Niven presented himself at the doors of Central Casting, he found out that he had to have a work permit, to allow him to reside and work in the U.S.

This meant that Niven had to leave U.S. soil, and again, according to his autobiography, he left for Mexico where he worked as a "gun-man", cleaning and polishing the rifles of the visiting Americans who came there to hunt quail and various other game. He received his Resident Alien Visa from the American Consulate when his birth certificate arrived from England. He then returned to the U.S. and was accepted by Central Casting as "Anglo-Saxon Type No. 2008."

His first work as an extra was as a Mexican in a Western. This inauspicious start notwithstanding, he then found himself an agent - Bill Hawks. He was signed up for a non-speaking part in MGM's "Mutiny On The Bounty" (1935).

He had a contract with independent film producer Samuel Goldwyn, which established his career. Niven joined what became known as the Hollywood Raj, a group of British actors in Hollywood. Other members of the group included Boris Karloff, Stan Laurel, Basil Rathbone, Ronald Colman and C. Aubrey Smith. One of his first major roles was in The Charge of the Light Brigade in 1936. A year later he starred as Capt. Fritz von Tarlenheim in 1937's The Prisoner of Zenda. Not wanting to be typecast as a 'swashbuckler' as Flynn had been, Niven made films such as the 1939 RKO comedy Bachelor Mother with Ginger Rogers, and Raffles, in which he played a gentleman thief.

World War II service

After the United Kingdom declared war in 1939, Niven returned to England and joined the British Army. First serving with the Rifle Brigade, Niven was assigned to a motor training battalion. Niven interviewed for a position with the British Commandos, and was assigned to a training base at Inverailort House in the Western Highlands. Niven would later claim credit for introducing British hero Robert Laycock to the Commandos. Working with the Army Film Unit, he also took part in the deception campaign, using a minor actor M.E. Clifton James, a Montgomery lookalike, to convince the Germans that the D-Day landings would be made in the Mediterranean. Niven took part in the Normandy landings, arriving several days after D-Day. He acted in two films during the war, both of strong propaganda value: The First of the Few (1942) and The Way Ahead (1944). During his war service, his batman was Private Peter Ustinov (both of whom appeared in The Way Ahead (1944), and with whom Niven would later co-star in Death on the Nile).

Niven remained close-mouthed about the war, despite public interest in celebrities in combat and a reputation for storytelling. He said once: "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." Niven also had special scorn for the 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." One story has surfaced: about to lead his men into a battle with an expectation of heavy casualties, Niven eased their nervousness by telling them, "It's all very well for you chaps, but I'll have to do this all over again in Hollywood with Errol Flynn!"

He did open up about his war experience in his 1971 autobiography, The Moon's a Balloon, mentioning his private conversations with Winston Churchill, the bombings, and what it was like entering Germany with the occupation forces. Niven stated that he first met Churchill during a dinner party in February 1940 when 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."

In spite of a six year absence from the screen, he came second in the 1945 Popularity Poll of British film stars. On his return to Hollywood after the war, he was made a Legionnaire of the Legion of Merit, the highest American order that can be earned by a foreigner. This was presented to Lt. Col. David Niven by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

David Niven was a member of the specialist Phantom Signals Unit, and was responsible for reporting and locating enemy positions, bomb lines and also keeping rear Commanders up to date on changing battle lines. Niven was posted at one time to Chilham in Kent. Eisenhower was so disappointed with communications difficulty on D-Day that he personally ordered a Phantom Unit to be attached to his headquarters.

Resumption of acting career

He resumed his career after the war, with films such as A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Around the World in 80 Days (1956) (as Phileas Fogg), The Guns Of Navarone (1961), and The Pink Panther (1963).

The same year as he hosted the show with Jack Lemmon and Bob Hope, Niven won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in Separate Tables (1958). Niven had a long and complex relationship with Samuel Goldwyn, who had first given him his start, but whom Niven believed had been treating him unfairly. Despite their long business history, Niven and Goldwyn went through an eight year estrangement in which Niven was essentially blacklisted from the movie industry after demanding greater compensation for his work. After winning the Academy Award, Niven received a telephone call from Goldwyn with the invitation that he should come to his home. Niven claimed that he was in Goldwyn's drawing room when he noticed a picture of him in uniform that he had sent to Goldwyn from England during World War II. He claimed that in happier times with Goldwyn, he had observed this same picture sitting on top of Goldwyn's piano. Now years later, the picture was still in the exact same spot. Niven claimed that as he was looking at the picture, Goldwyn's wife, Francis, approached him and said, "Sam never took it down."

David Niven had in fact been Ian Fleming's preference for the part of James Bond, however EON Productions chose Sean Connery for their series. In 1967, he starred with Deborah Kerr and Barbara Bouchet in the James Bond satire, Casino Royale. In a documentary included with the U.S. DVD of the 1967 release of Casino Royale, Charles K. Feldman states that Ian Fleming had written the book with David Niven in mind, and therefore sent a copy of the book to Niven. David Niven is the only James Bond actor who is mentioned by name in the text of Fleming's James Bond novels. In On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Bond visits an exclusive ski resort in Switzerland where he is told that David Niven is a frequent visitor and in You Only Live Twice, David Niven is referred to as the only real gentleman in Hollywood.

Late in life, he gained critical acclaim for his memoirs of his boyhood and acting career, The Moon's a Balloon (1971) and Bring On the Empty Horses (1975). Although it has since come to light that despite Niven's frequent recounting of anecdotes about Hollywood in a manner that suggested that he had been personally involved at the time, in many cases he had not in fact been a witness to them and he was merely embroidering stories he had heard at third hand.

Perhaps one of Niven's finest moments came when he had to present the 46th Annual Oscars ceremony, and a naked man appeared behind him, running across the stage. Not to be outclassed or nonplussed even for a moment, Niven came back with the one liner "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!


After a whirlwind two-week romance in 1940, Niven married Primula Susan Rollo (18 February 1918, London - 21 May 1946, Beverly Hills, California), the aristocratic daughter of a British lawyer. The couple had two sons, David Jr. and Jamie. Primula died at age 28, only six weeks after moving to America, of a fractured skull and brain lacerations from an accidental fall in the home of Tyrone Power. While playing hide and seek, she walked through a door believing it led to a closet. Instead, it led to a stone staircase to the basement. Niven recalled this as the darkest period of his life, years afterwards thanking his friends for their patience and forbearance during this time. He later claimed to have been so grief stricken that he thought for a while that he'd gone mad. He eventually rallied and returned to film making.

Niven met Hjördis Paulina Tersmeden (née Genberg, 1921–1997), a divorced Swedish fashion model and frustrated actress, in 1948. The moment of his meeting her was recounted by Niven in what might be a classic example of his writing style:

I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life - tall, slim, auburn hair, uptilted 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.

They married ten days later.

In October 1951, while pheasant shooting with friends in New England, Hjördis was shot in the face, neck and chest by two of Niven's companions. While convalescing in the Blackstone Hotel in New York, Niven and Hjördis were next door neighbours with Audrey Hepburn, who made her debut on Broadway that season. In 1960, while filming Please Don't Eat the Daisies with Doris Day, Niven and Hjördis separated for a few weeks, though they later reconciled.

In what turned out to be an unsuccessful effort to bring harmony to a loveless marriage, they adopted two girls, Kristin and Fiona, one of whom has long been rumored to be Niven's child by another fashion model, Mona Gunnarson. The actor's rebound second marriage was as unhappy as his previous marriage had been happy. Unable to achieve an acting career, Hjördis was reported as having affairs with other men and became an alcoholic.


In 1980, Niven began experiencing fatigue, muscle weakness, and a warble in his voice. A 1981 interview on Michael Parkinson's talk show alarmed family and friends; viewers wondered if Niven had either been drinking or suffered a stroke. (Another 1981 interview, posted on YouTube, shows Niven on The Merv Griffin Show while publicizing his "Go Slowly, Come Back Quickly" novel. He blames his slightly slurred voice on the shooting schedule on the film he'd been making; "Better Late Than Never.") He received the diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis later that year. His hosting duties of the American Film Institute tribute to Fred Astaire marked his final appearance in Hollywood. He shot two cameos for his final films, Trail of the Pink Panther and Curse of the Pink Panther, in July 1982 -- his voice by this time was so weak, he was dubbed by Rich Little.

In February 1983, using a false name to avoid publicity, Niven was hospitalised for ten days for treatment, ostensibly for a digestive problem. Afterwards, he returned to his chalet at Chateau d'Oex in Switzerland, where his condition continued to decline. He refused to return to the hospital, and his family supported his decision. Niven died in Switzerland on 29 July 1983 of motor neurone disease (Lou Gehrig's Disease) at age 73. Bitter, estranged, and plagued by depression, Niven's wife Hjördis showed up drunk at the funeral, having been persuaded to attend by family friend Prince Rainier III of Monaco. Hjördis added insult to injury by noting in her will that "under no circumstances" was she to be buried alongside her husband in the place left for her in the crypt in Switzerland.

According to Graham Lord, who wrote a biography on David Niven, called simply "Niv", Lord writes that there have been reports that some have accused David Niven of being especially friendly to people who could have done him some good. Lord also says that "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.

Niven died on the same day as Raymond Massey, his co-star in The Prisoner of Zenda and A Matter of Life and Death.


  • "It really is amazing. Can you imagine being wonderfully overpaid for dressing up and playing games? It's like being Peter Pan"
  • "I don't think his acting ever quite achieved the brilliance or the polish of his dinner-party conversations." — John Mortimer on Niven
  • "I've been lucky enough to win an Oscar, write a best-seller — my other dream would be to have a painting in the Louvre. The only way that's going to happen is if I paint a dirty one on the wall of the gentlemen's lavatory."



Niven,David, Round the Rugged Rocks, 1951, The Cresset Press,London

  • Niven, David (1971). The Moon's a Balloon. London: Hamish Hamilton.
  • Niven, David (1975). Bring on the Empty Horses. London: Hamish Hamilton.
  • Niven, David (1981). Go Slowly, Come Back Quickly. London: Hamish Hamilton.
  • Morley, Sheridan (1985). The Other Side of the Moon. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.


Niven, David (1951). Round the Rugged Rocks. London: The Cresset Press.

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