If I were to think of the epitome of a British Gentleman on the silver screen, one man tends to stand head and shoulders above others, that was David Niven. Soldier, best selling author, oscar winning actor, notorious wit and he was as much a Gentleman off-screen as well.
James David Graham Niven was born in London in 1910. His father, William, sadly passed away in WWI and his mother, Henrietta, remarried Sir Thomas Comyn-Platt soon afterwards. He was a rebellious child at the English private schools that he attended, but found his feet at Stowe and went on to the world famous military academy of Sandhurst. He went into the army and was promoted to lieutenant, but was bored and soon after this promotion he resigned and headed across the Atlantic landing to Hollywood in 1934. His life would change forever.
Joining the pool of actors in ‘Central Casting’ he caught the eye of the legendary movie producer Samuel Goldwyn and went on to appear in various movies such as “Wuthering Heights” and “The Charge of the Light Brigade”. During this time he established a circle of British friends nicknamed the “Hollywood Raj”, which included Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady), Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes) and probably his best friend at the time, Errol Flynn. They ended up renting a home together which became a notorious Bachelor Pad and was given the name ‘Cirrhosis-by-the-Sea’ for the amount of wild parties that were thrown there.
After 19 movies for Samuel Goldwyn, the Second World War started and Niven, always the Gentleman, returned to England to re-enlist, he was the only one to do so from that Hollywood group. He moved swiftly from his first posting into the Commandos in which he served for the rest of the war. Though he remained tight lipped about his military service a few stories arose, including that he was friendly with Winston Churchill and served in the Invasion of Normandy. After his very distinguished military service at the end of the war, he was a Lieutenant-Colonel and was honoured in america with a Legion of Merit.
“Look, you chaps only have to do this once. But I’ll have to do it all over again in Hollywood with Errol Flynn!”
David Niven, talking to his troops before leading them into battle
He returned to Hollywood and continued his successful career, winning a Golden Globe for ‘The Moon is Blue’ and an Oscar for “Separate Tables’. Over the course of the rest of his career he starred in over 80 movies in which he played heroes, cads, romantic leads, literary figures and, very occasionally, a not very good guy.
We could spend several articles listing his movies and their merits, but if you have never seen him act, here are 5 movies to start with – The Charge of the Light Brigade; The Moon is Blue; A Matter of Life & Death; Around the World in 80 Days and The Guns of Navarone.
He was Ian Fleming’s first choice for James Bond, they had obviously crossed paths in World War II, and he was mentioned by name in both the books, ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ and ‘You Only Live Twice’. He did play Bond in a 1967 spoof ‘Casino Royale’, but imagine what Bond would have been like with the Dapper David in the lead?
“The Moon’s a Balloon” his autobiography, is probably his most famous work, it has sold millions of copies and was translated into many languages, it is a witty and honest tale about his life and time in Hollywood. It was followed by “Bring on the Empty Horses” which was contained more reminiscences of Hollywood in the golden age of the 1930s and 40s. We highly recommend getting a copy and laughing your way along your commute.
He was a great wit and it was said there was a running joke that he was a better dinner party raconteur than an actor. His quick wit was shown when he hosted the Oscars in 1974, a naked male streaker ran across the stage, without missing a beat, Niven quipped, “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?”
Sadly, his personal life was tinged with tragedy. His first wife, Primula, whom he married after a 2 week romance, died tragically in an accident after only 6 years of marriage. He went onto to marry a Swedish model, Hjördis, a couple of years later. David was initially smitten upon first sight, but it proved to be a marriage that was tumultuous, as she turned to drink and affairs, although they never divorced.
David Niven passed away from Motor Neurone Disease (yes, the Ice Bucket Challenge disease) on the 29th July 1983 at his home in Switzerland. His memorial service in London in October was attended by 1,200 people, including Royalty and other legends of stage and screen. The largest wreath however came from the porters of London’s Heathrow Airport, the card read –
“To the finest gentleman who ever walked through these halls. He made a porter feel like a king”
We salute you, David Niven – A Gentleman Icon