Monday, March 01, 2010


Centennial Tributes: David Niven

By Liz Hunt
It’s easy to celebrate the late actor David Niven’s life.

Today, Niven would have been 100. Had he lived, the Oscar-, British Academy Award- and Golden Globe-winning actor probably would have been a dapper, urbane gent with wavy white hair, a pencil-thin moustache and, as always, be 100 percent British.

He died July 29, 1983, at his home in Chateau-d’Oex, Switzerland, after a battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease). He is buried there.

His 112 movies include best picture winner Around the World in 80 Days, the film that won him the Oscar, Separate Tables, The Guns of Navarone, the 007 farce Casino Royale and the original Pink Panther.

He was known for his gentle, self-deprecating manner, his light-hand with comedy, his depth as a dramatic actor, his friendships with screen stars Cary Grant, Clark Gable and Roger Moore, and his charming wit — whether aimed at Errol Flynn or a streaker dashing behind him during the 1974 Oscar ceremony.

James David Graham Niven was born in London in 1910. For years, his biography said he was born in Kirriemuir, Scotland, because he thought it sounded more romantic than London.

His father was Scottish, a British military officer who died at Gallipoli on Aug. 21, 1915. He was a landowner who left his wife Henrietta with four children, David, Max, Joyce and Grizel.

Niven’s wit emerged early. He said as a child he felt superior to others because when reciting the Lord’s Prayer in church, he thought it was written “Our Father, who art a Niven…”

When his mother remarried, Niven attended several boarding schools. He hated them, and his grades showed it, but his soldier father’s reputation helped him get into the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. He left there as a second lieutenant. He was asked where he wanted to serve and he wrote he’d be fine anywhere but the Highland Light Infantry, which was where he was posted. He later transferred to the Rifle Brigade. During his service, he was posted to Malta and charmed a number of highly placed people with his devil-may-care attitude and his dashing looks, a precursor of many of his future film roles.

After his military service, Niven took a number of odd jobs, including by his account, a gunnery instructor for Cuban revolutionaries. He arrived in Hollywood in the early 1930s had bit parts in films such as There Goes the Bride, Eyes of Fate and Cleopatra.

Samuel Goldwyn took an interest in the engaging young man in 1935, adding him to a group of attractive young contract players. He had several small roles for Goldwyn and was loaned to 20th Century Fox for the 1936 Thank You, Jeeves!

It was then he started making friends with fellow actors Flynn and several other British actors in Hollywood, and also made quite a splash with the ladies of the film world.

He had a few supporting roles and carried a few movies before 1939, when he returned to Britain to reenlist in the army’s Rifle Brigade. He left World War II to make two movies to rally British morale, Spitfire and The Way Ahead. Fellow actor Peter Ustinov served as his valet in the army.

Niven married Primula Rollo in 1940 and they had two children. Despite his fighting for six years, he came in second in the 1945 Popularity Poll of British film stars. When he returned to Hollywood, he was made a Legionnaire of the Order of Merit, the highest American order a non-American can earn. It was presented to Niven by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

His first major post-war film was working with Powell and Pressburger in Stairway to Heaven (known as A Matter of Life and Death in the U.K.) about a British aviator who after surviving a certain death must argue for his life before a celestial court.

His life changed when his wife died in an accident during a dinner party at Tyrone Power’s home in 1946. During a game of hide and seek, she opened a door and walked in, thinking it was a closet. It was the basement, and she fell downstairs, landed on concrete and died.

It was a low point in his life. In a 2009 biography of the actor, David Niven: The Man Behind the Balloon by Michael Munn, the author recalls an interview with Niven when he remembered one moment he toyed with suicide. The story was reported in U.S. tabloid the Globe and says that after his first wife died, he decided to shoot himself.

In that report, Niven said, “I took a gun and put the barrel in my mouth and with barely a thought for my children, which was unforgiveable, I pulled the trigger. And the bloody thing didn’t fire.” The act shocked Niven, and while he never knew why the gun didn’t fire, he knew he would live to take care of his children. Gable, who had dealt with the accidental death of his wife Carole Lombard, was able to help Niven with his loss as well.

In 1947, he made The Bishop’s Wife with Loretta Young and Cary Grant, now a holiday classic. He played the title role (the bishop, not the wife). Niven said Grant was a great actor because he pursued perfection in himself.

His comments about friend Flynn were more pointed. “You can count on Errol Flynn, he’ll always let you down.

“Flynn was a magnificent specimen of the rampant male. Outrageously good looking, he was a great natural athlete who played tennis with Donald Budge and boxed with ‘Mushy’ Calahan. The extras, among who I had many friends, disliked him intensely.”

Niven married Hjodis Genberg in early 1948. They adopted two children, (one was his by a Swedish model) and they were married until his death.

After his contract with Goldwyn ended in 1949, Niven could only get small roles, and he joined Dick Powell, Charles Boyer and Ida Lupino to form the television production company “Four Star.” In Four Star Playhouse’s 33 episodes between 1952 and 1956, Niven was able to play the strong dramatic roles he had wanted. While working with “Four Star,” Niven met Blake Edwards, who would hire him years later for another famous role.

For the rest of his career, he switched between big and small screens with ease. He enjoyed the meatier dramatic roles, but the public liked his lighter-hearted roles better.

Twice in the 1950s he teamed with director Otto Preminger, once in the then-controversial 1953 The Moon Is Blue where he and William Holden competed for the affections of "virgin" Maggie McNamara and again in 1958's Bonjour Tristesse where he played a widower whose scheming daughter (Jean Seberg) tried to thwart any potential romantic interests, especially Deborah Kerr.

His luck in film changed forever in 1956, when he played globetrotter Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days, his most successful film and 1956's Oscar winner for best picture. His biggest break came when Laurence Olivier dropped out of Separate Tables. Scheduled for a 1958 release, Niven was tapped to play an elderly and disgraced British military man. He played down his part, saying, “They gave me very good lines and then cut to Deborah Kerr while I was saying them.” His modesty wasn’t necessary. He took home an Oscar, a BAFTA and a Golden Globe award for best actor for his reading of Major Angus Pollock.
Hollywood’s recognition of Niven as a serious actor made him a highly paid professional in films and television throughout the 1960s. It was then that Niven began his long flirtation with British super spy James Bond. Ian Fleming recommended that Niven play Bond in Dr. No in 1962. Sadly, producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli thought Niven too old for the part. Niven was not totally ignored. In the Bond novel You Only Live Twice, Fleming refers to Niven and a pet bird in the story is named after the actor. Three years after the book was released, Niven played Bond in the spy send-up, 1967’s Casino Royale, a Fleming Bond novel to which Broccoli didn't own the rights.

Niven wasn’t only an actor. During breaks, he wrote two autobiographies, The Moon’s a Balloon in 1972, and Bring on the Empty Horses in 1975. His novels include Round the Ragged Rocks and Go Slowly, Come Back Quickly, both published posthumously.

In 1976, he joined a great ensemble of actors including Peter Sellers, Alec Guinness, Maggie Smith and Peter Falk among others in Neil Simon's spoof of both film and literary detectives in Murder By Death, giving Niven a chance to play a variation on William Powell's Nick Charles from The Thin Man films. Two years later, he got to reunite with his war-time valet when he and Ustinov co-starred in the Agatha Christie adaptation Death on the Nile.

Niven created one of his more lasting characters, the suave jewel thief Sir Charles Lytton for Edwards’ skewed heist picture that brought Sellers' Inspector Clouseau, 1964's The Pink Panther. The movie spawned multiple sequels and Niven reprised Lytton in two, 1982’s Trail of the Pink Panther and Curse of the Pink Panther in 1983.

The public was not aware that Niven had been diagnosed with ALS early in the 1980s. By the time filming began on the final two films, Niven could physically appear, but his speech was slurred. Impressionist Rich Little was brought in to do Niven’s lines.

Niven underplayed his strengths with gentle humor, which made him popular on television shows and for witty quotes for newspapers.

“I’ve been lucky enough to win an Oscar and write a best seller — my other dream would be to have a painting in the Louvre,” he said. “The only way that’s going to happen is if I paint a dirty one on the wall of the gentleman’s lavatory.”

As a naked man ran behind him at the 1974 Oscars, very calmly he said, “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?”

Finally, some thoughts on acting current performers might keep in mind.

“This isn’t work. It’s fun. The whole thing is fun. I hear actors say, ‘I have to go to work tomorrow.’ Nonsense. Work is eight hours in a coal mine or a government office,” he explained. “Getting up in the morning and putting on a funny moustache and dressing up and showing off in front of the grown-ups, that’s play, and for which we’re beautifully overpaid. I’ve always felt that way. After all, how many people in the world are doing things they like to do?”

One final thought for the man who would have been 100 years old. It’s something he never had to worry happening to him.

“Actors don’t retire. They just get offered fewer roles.”

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Thanks for the great post. I've always loved Niven's memoirs-- fantastic anecdotes, and so wittily told. Appropriately enough, my word verification is "gents," of which Niven was certainly one.
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