Nationality: British. Born: James David Graham Niven in Kirriemuir, Scotland (some sources say London, England), 1 March 1910. Education: Attended Stowe House boarding school, near Buckingham, 1923–26; Royal Military College, Sandhurst, 1927–29: commissioned lieutenant in Highland Light Infantry: served in Malta and England to 1932. Military Service: Rifle Brigade, 1939–45: lieutenant colonel. Family: Married 1) Primula Rollo, 1940 (died 1946), sons: the producer-director David Jr. and James Graham; 2) Hjordia Tersmeden, 1948, adopted daughters: Kristina and Fiona. Career: After resigning commission, roamed Canada and United States; 1932—first role as extra in There Goes the Bride; 1935—contract with Samuel Goldwyn, first speaking role in film Without Regret; 1939—leading role in Wuthering Heights; 1946—returned to Hollywood after the war ended; 1951—on Broadway in Nina; 1952—on stage in The Moon Is Blue in Hollywood, and in film version, 1953; 1952—formed Four Star Playhouse, with Charles Boyer, Ida Lupino, and Dick Powell, and appeared in the TV series Four Star Playhouse, 1952–56, and Alcoa Theatre, 1957–58; 1959—host of TV series The David Niven Show; 1960—moved to Chateau-d'Oex, Switzerland; 1964–65—in TV series The Rogues; 1979—in TV mini-series A Man Called Intrepid, 1979. Awards: Best Actor Academy Award, and Best Actor, New York Film Critics, for Separate Tables, 1958; London Evening Standard Special Award, 1980. Died: Of ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), in Chateau-d'Oex, Switzerland, 29 July 1983.
Films as Actor:
There Goes the Bride (De Courville) (as extra)
All the Winners (Malins) (as extra)
Mutiny on the Bounty (Lloyd) (as extra); Without Regret (Harold Young) (as Bill Gage); A Feather in Her Hat (Santell) (as Leo Cartwright); Barbary Coast (Hawks) (as sailor); Splendor (Nugent) (as Clancey Lorrimore)
Rose Marie (Van Dyke) (as Teddy); Palm Springs (Palm Springs Affair) (Scotto) (as George Brittel); Dodsworth (Wyler) (as Maj. Clyde Lockert); Thank You, Jeeves (Thank You, Mr. Jeeves) (Arthur Greville Collins) (as Bertie Wooster); The Charge of the Light Brigade (Curtiz) (as Capt. James Randall); Beloved Enemy (Potter) (as Gerald Preston)
We Have Our Moments (Werker) (as Joe Gilling); The Prisoner of Zenda (Cromwell and Van Dyke) (as Capt. Fritz von Tarlenheim); Dinner at the Ritz (Schuster) (as Paul de Brack)
Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (Lubitsch) (as Albert de Regnier); Four Men and a Prayer (Ford) (as Christopher Leigh); Three Blind Mice (Seiter) (as Steve Harrington); The Dawn Patrol (Goulding) (as Lt. Scott)
Wuthering Heights (Wyler) (as Edgar Linton); Bachelor Mother (Kanin) (as David Merlin); The Real Glory (Hathaway) (as Lt. McCool); Eternally Yours (Garnett) (as Tony); Raffles (Wood and Wyler) (title role)
The First of the Few (Spitfire) (Leslie Howard) (as Geoffrey Crisp)
The Way Ahead (The Immortal Battalion) (Reed) (as Lt. Jim Perry)
A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven) (Powell and Pressburger) (as Squadron Leader Peter D. Carter); Magnificent Doll (Borzage) (as Aaron Burr); The Perfect Marriage (Lewis Allen) (as Dale Williams)
The Other Love (de Toth) (as Dr. Anthony Stanton); The Bishop's Wife (Koster) (as Henry Brougham)
Bonnie Prince Charlie (Kimmins) (title role); Enchantment (Reis) (as Gen. Sir Roland "Rolle" Dane)
A Kiss in the Dark (Daves) (as Eric Phillips); A Kiss for Corliss (Almost a Bride) (Wallace) (as Kenneth Marquis)
The Elusive Pimpernel (The Fighting Pimpernel) (Powell and Pressburger) (as Sir Percy Blakeney); The Toast of New Orleans (Taurog) (as Jacques Riboudeaux)
Happy Go Lovely (Humberstone) (as B. G. Bruno); Soldiers Three (Garnett) (as Capt. Pindenny); The Lady Says No! (Ross) (as Bill Shelby); Appointment with Venus (Island Rescue) (Thomas) (as Maj. Valentine Moreland)
The Moon Is Blue (Preminger) (as David Slater); The Love Lottery (Charles Crichton) (as Rex Allerton)
Happy Ever After (Tonight's the Night) (Zampi) (as Jasper O'Leary); Carrington, V.C. (Court Martial) (Asquith) (title role)
The King's Thief (Leonard) (as Duke of Brampton)
The Birds and the Bees (Taurog) (as Col. Harris); Around the World in Eighty Days (Anderson) (as Phileas Fogg); The Little Hut (Herbert and Robson) (as Henry Brittingham-Brett)
Oh Men! Oh Women! (Nunnally Johnson) (as Dr. Alan Coles); My Man Godfrey (Koster) (title role); The Silken Affair (Kellino) (as Roger Tweakham, new accountant)
Bonjour Tristesse (Preminger) (as Raymond); Separate Tables (Delbert Mann) (as Maj. Pollock); Glamorous Hollywood (Staub—short) (as himself)
Ask Any Girl (Walters) (as Miles Doughton); Happy Anniversary (David Miller) (as Chris Walters)
Please Don't Eat the Daisies (Walters) (as Laurence Mackay)
The Guns of Navarone (J. Lee Thompson) (as Corporal Miller); I due nemici (The Best of Enemies) (Hamilton) (as Major Richardson)
La citta prigioniera (The Captive City; The Conquered City) (Anthony) (as Maj. Peter Whitfield); The Road to Hong Kong (Panama) (cameo as Tibetan monk); Guns of Darkness (Asquith) (as Tom Jordan)
55 Days at Peking (Nicholas Ray) (as Sir Arthur Robertson); Il giorno più corto (The Shortest Day) (Corbucci) (as himself)
The Pink Panther (Edwards) (as Sir Charles Litton); Bedtime Story (Levy) (as Lawrence Jamieson)
Lady L (Ustinov) (as Lord Lendale [Dicky]); Where the Spies Are (Guest) (as Dr. Jason Love)
Eye of the Devil (J. Lee Thompson—produced in 1966) (as Philippe de Montfaucon); Casino Royale (Huston and others) (as Sir James Bond)
The Extraordinary Seaman (Frankenheimer) (as Lt. Cmdr. Finchhaven, R.N.); Prudence and the Pill (Cook and Neame) (as Gerald Hardcastle); The Impossible Years (Michael Gordon) (as Jonathan Kingsley)
Before Winter Comes (J. Lee Thompson) (as Maj. Giles Burnside); Le Cerveau (The Brain) (Oury) (as Col. Matthews ["The Brain"])
The Statue (Amateau) (as Alex Bolt)
King, Queen, Knave (Herzbube) (Skolimowski) (as Charles Dreyer)
Vampira (Old Dracula) (Clive Donner) (as Count Dracula); Paper Tiger (Annakin) (as Walter Bradbury)
No Deposit, No Return (Tokar) (as J. W. Osborne); Murder by Death (Robert Moore) (as Dick Charleston)
Candleshoe (Tokar) (as Priory); Death on the Nile (Guillerman) (as Colonel Rice)
Escape to Athena (Cosmatos) (as Professor Blake); A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square (The Biggest Bank Robbery; The Big Scam; The Mayfair Bank Caper) (Thomas) (as Ivan/Gen. Bernard Drew)
Rough Cut (Siegel) (as Chief Inspector Cyril Willis)
The Sea Wolves (McLaglen) (as Col. W. H. Grice)
Better Late than Never (Ménage à Trois; Whose Little Girl Are You?) (Forbes) (as Nicholas "Nick" Cartland); Trail of the Pink Panther (Edwards) (as Sir Charles Litton)
Curse of the Pink Panther (Edwards) (as Sir Charles Litton)
By NIVEN: books—
Round the Rugged Rocks (novel), London, 1951; as Once over Lightly, New York, 1951.
The Moon's a Balloon: Reminiscences, London, 1971.
Bring on the Empty Horses, London, 1975.
Go Slowly, Come Back Quickly (novel), New York, 1981.
By NIVEN: articles—
Interview with J. Reid, in Motion Picture, July 1937.
"This Is Myself," in Movieland Magazine, June 1947.
"Turning the Tables on Todd," in Hollywood Reporter, 18 November 1957.
"I'm Always Surprising Myself," in Saturday Evening Post, July 1958.
Interview in Newsweek (New York), 22 December 1958.
"A Way with Words," interview in Films and Filming (London), November 1978.
"Odds against Success," in Films (London), December 1980.
On NIVEN: books—
Garrett, Gerard, The Films of David Niven, London, 1975.
Haining, Peter, The Last Gentleman: A Tribute to David Niven, 1984.
Hutchinson, Tom, Niven's Hollywood, London, 1984.
Morley, Sheridan, The Other Side of the Moon: The Life of David Niven, London, 1985.
Francisco, Charles, David Niven: Endearing Rascal, New York, 1986.
Fowler, Karin J., David Niven: A Bio-Bibliography, Westport, Connecticut, 1995.
On NIVEN: articles—
Hamilton, S., "Life Story," in Photoplay (New York), September 1939.
Current Biography 1957, New York, 1957.
Thomas, A., "David Niven," in Films in Review (New York), February 1962.
"The Screen Answers Back," in Films and Filming (London), May 1962.
Obituary in Variety (New York), 3 August 1983.
Obituary in Films and Filming (London), September 1983.
Gallagher, John A., "A Final Tribute: David Niven 1910–1983," in Films in Review (New York), October 1983.
Norman, Barry, in The Film Greats, London, 1985.
Niven, James G., "Life with Father," in Vanity Fair (New York), July 1988.
Hale, C., in Film Dope (Nottingham, England), July 1992.
Stars (Mariembourg, Belgium), Spring 1993.
* * *
Graceful and urbane David Niven excelled at light comedy and playing the gentleman rogue. He possessed considerable charm, not unlike Cary Grant or Errol Flynn, but his sexuality was presented in a more subtle style. Niven could be sexy by just clinking his champagne glass lightly against the tip of his partner's glass, or by tentatively clearing his throat and then half-smiling with a bright, searching gaze toward his leading lady.
Niven came from a long line of military men, but, after tough years at Sandhurst military academy and a stint in the British army, he chose a life of drifting and adventuring which eventually led him to find work as a $2.50-per-day Hollywood extra in 1934. These early years, as well as his later career, are chronicled in two eloquent, best-selling memoirs.
Niven quickly ingratiated himself with the influential British colony in Hollywood, and it was not long before his social contacts paid off. Samuel Goldwyn put him under contract at $100 per week, and he began working regularly. From an inexperienced and rather stiff bit player, he rose to minor dramatic roles in a variety of films, including quality pictures such as Dodsworth, The Charge of the Light Brigade, and The Prisoner of Zenda. Rapidly, his acting improved, and in The Dawn Patrol Niven played his first truly memorable part as Errol Flynn's flying buddy. A flair for drawing-room comedy surfaced in Dinner at the Ritz, and peaked in Bachelor Mother, in which his high-toned British dignity was a perfect foil to Ginger Rogers's working-class American brassiness.
At the onset of World War II, Niven was one of the first film stars to join (or, in his case, reenlist in) the military. Recruited twice for dramatic propaganda films, First of the Few and The Way Ahead, he was otherwise inactive in pictures for almost six years. Discharged as a colonel, he returned to Goldwyn and appeared in a number of forgettable films, with the exception being the silly but heartwarming comedy The Bishop's Wife, which has become a Christmas classic. His growing dissatisfaction with the studio resulted in a contractual release. Now middle-aged, Niven began his freelancing period without much luck; poor choices of scripts damaged his box-office drawing power.
Two films during the late 1950s reestablished his critical reputation and popularity. As the precise and unflappable Phileas Fogg, the character most closely associated with him, Niven held together the all-star extravaganza Around the World in Eighty Days. His pathetic bogus major in Separate Tables epitomized grace under pressure and proved that Niven could sustain a dramatic role. For the film, he was awarded a Best Actor Oscar.
At the beginning of the 1960s, he appeared in two very different but memorable motion pictures. In Please Don't Eat the Daisies, he gave a florid, funny performance as a drama critic with family ties. The part of the dry-witted corporal with an expertise in explosives in The Guns of Navarone catered to Niven's screen personality while allowing him an opportunity to play in a big-budget, macho story of brave saboteurs on an all-but-impossible endeavor. Unfortunately, however, his last years are littered with too many appearances in second-rate fare.
David Niven's career stands as credit to his persistence and versatility. He made transitions from decade to decade gracefully, bridging the old Hollywood and the new. He meshed well with any co-star; his effortlessly urbane style and distinctive sense of timing were unforgettable in his good films, and served him well in those that were less than memorable.
—Richard Sater, updated by Audrey E. Kupferberg