David Niven

James David Graham Niven (/ˈnɪvən/; 1 March 1910 – 29 July 1983)[1][2] was an English actor, memoirist 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 commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Highland Light Infantry. Having developed an interest in acting, he left the army, 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 role in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer'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. In 1942 he co-starred in the morale-building film about the development of the Supermarine Spitfire fighter, The First of the Few (American title Spitfire), which was enthusiastically endorsed by Winston Churchill.

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) with Cary Grant, 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.

David Niven
David Niven 4 Allan Warren
Niven in 1973
James David Graham Niven

1 March 1910
Belgravia, London, England
Died29 July 1983 (aged 73)
Château-d'Œx, Switzerland
Resting placeChâteau-d'Œx Cemetery
EducationHeatherdown Preparatory School
Stowe School
Alma materRoyal Military College, Sandhurst
OccupationActor, author
Years active1932–1983
Primula Susan Rollo
(m. 1940; died 1946)

Hjördis Paulina Genberg Tersmeden
(m. 1948)
Military career
Allegiance United Kingdom
Service/branch British Army
Years of service1930–1933
Service number44959
UnitHighland Light Infantry
Rifle Brigade (Prince Consort's Own)
Battles/warsWorld War II
AwardsLegion of Merit

Early life

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.[3] He was named David after 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.[4]

David Niven's mother, Henrietta, was of French and Welsh ancestry. She was born in Wales, the daughter of army officer William Degacher (1841–1879) who was married to Julia Caroline Smith, the daughter of Lieutenant General James Webber Smith. Niven's maternal grandfather, William Degacher, was killed in the Battle of Isandlwana (1879), during the Zulu War.[5][6] 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.[7]

David Niven's father, William Niven, 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.[8]

Niven's mother, Henrietta Niven, remarried Sir Thomas Comyn-Platt in London in 1917. Graham Lord, author and biographer, suggested in Niv: The Authorised Biography of David Niven, that Comyn-Platt and Mrs. Niven had been having an affair for some time before her husband's death. Furthermore, some believe that Sir Thomas may well have been David Niven's biological father. This supposition has some support among Henrietta's children. A reviewer of Lord's book stated that its photographic evidence showing a strong physical resemblance between Niven and Comyn-Platt "would appear to confirm these theories, though photographs can often be misleading."[9]

David Niven had three older siblings:

Education and army service

Stowe School - geograph.org.uk - 582994
Stowe School

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."[12] He attended the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, graduating in 1930 with a commission as a second lieutenant in the British Army.[13]

He did well at Sandhurst, which gave him the "officer and gentleman" bearing that was 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. 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.[12]

Niven grew tired of the peacetime army. Though promoted to lieutenant on 1 January 1933,[14] 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."[12]

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.[15] 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

As an extra

When Niven presented himself at Central Casting, he learned that he needed a work permit to reside and work in the United States. 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 US and was accepted by Central Casting as "Anglo-Saxon Type No. 2,008."

Among the films he can be glimpsed in were Barbary Coast (1935) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). He had a small role in A Feather in Her Hat (1935) at Columbia and back to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for a bit role, billed as David Nivens in Rose Marie (1936).

Sam Goldwyn

Niven's 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.

For Goldwyn, Niven had a small role in Splendor (1935). He was lent to MGM for a small part in Rose Marie (1936) then had a larger one in Palm Springs (1936) at Paramount.

His first sizeable part for Goldwyn came in Dodsworth (1936), playing a man who flirts with Ruth Chatterton. He was loaned to 20th Century Fox to play Bertie Wooster in Thank You, Jeeves! (1936), then had a good part as a soldier in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) at Warners, an Imperial adventure film starring his one-time housemate Errol Flynn.

Niven was fourth billed in Beloved Enemy (1936) for Goldwyn, supporting Merle Oberon with whom he became romantically involved. Universal used him in We Have Our Moments (1937) then he had another good support part in David O. Selznick's The Prisoner of Zenda (1937).

Fox gave him the lead in a B picture, Dinner at the Ritz (1938) and he had a support part in Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938) directed by Ernst Lubitsch at Paramount. Niven was one of the four heroes in John Ford's Four Men and a Prayer (1938) at Fox. He remained at that studio to play a fake love interest in Three Blind Mice (1938).

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,[16] 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.

Leading man

Niven graduated to star parts in "A" films with The Dawn Patrol (1938) remake at Warners; he was billed after Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone but it was a leading role and the film did excellent business. Niven was reluctant to take a support part in Wuthering Heights (1939) for Goldwyn, but eventually relented and the film was a big success.

RKO borrowed him to play Ginger Rogers' leading man in the romantic comedy, Bachelor Mother (1939), which was a big hit. Goldwyn used him to support Gary Cooper in an adventure tale The Real Glory (1939), and Walter Wanger cast him opposite Loretta Young in Eternally Yours (1939). Goldwyn finally gave Niven a lead part, the title role as the eponymous gentleman safe-cracker in Raffles (1939).

Second World War

The day 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.[17]

Niven was recommissioned as a lieutenant into the Rifle Brigade (Prince Consort's Own) on 25 February 1940,[18] 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.

Film work

He acted in two films made during the war, The First of the Few (1942), directed by Leslie Howard, and The Way Ahead (1944), directed by Carol Reed. 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 played a large supporting role as a Frenchman 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 "Phantom," a secret reconnaissance and signals unit which located and reported enemy positions,[19] 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.

Niven 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."[12]

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!" [20]

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.[21] 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. In that capacity, Niven worked closely with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and sometimes with Major Glenn Miller and Miller's Army Air Force Band.[22][23]

Postwar career

David Niven in Enchantment (1948)
Niven in the 1948 film Enchantment

Niven resumed his career while still in England, playing the lead in A Matter of Life and Death (1946), from the team of Powell and Pressburger. The movie was critically acclaimed, popular in England and the recipient of the first Royal Film Performance.

Return to Hollywood

Niven returned to Hollywood, and encountered tragedy when his first wife died after falling down a set of stairs accidentally at a party. Goldwyn loaned him to play Aaron Burr in Magnificent Doll (1946) opposite Ginger Rogers, then to Paramount for The Perfect Marriage (1947) with Loretta Young and Enterprise Productions for The Other Love (1947).

For Goldwyn he supported Cary Grant and Young in The Bishop's Wife (1947). He returned to England when Goldwyn loaned him to Alexander Korda to play the title role in Bonnie Prince Charlie (1948), a notorious box office flop.

Back in Hollywood, Niven was in Goldwyn's Enchantment (1948). At Warner Bros he was in a comedy A Kiss in the Dark (1948) then he appeared opposite Shirley Temple in the comedy A Kiss for Corliss (1949). None of these films were successful at the box office and Niven's career was struggling.

He returned to Britain to play the title role in The Elusive Pimpernel (1950) from Powell and Pressberger, which was to have been financed by Korda and Goldwyn. Goldwyn pulled out, and the film did not appear in the US for three years. Niven had a long, complex relationship with Goldwyn, who gave him his first start, but the dispute over The Elusive Pimpernel and Niven's demands for more money led to a long estrangement between the two in the 1950s.[24]

Career decline

David Niven in The Toast of New Orleans trailer cropped
From the trailer for The Toast of New Orleans (1950)

Niven struggled for a while to recapture his former position. He supported Mario Lanza in a musical at MGM, The Toast of New Orleans (1950). He then went to England and appeared in a musical with Vera-Ellen, Happy Go Lovely (1951); it was little seen in the US but was a big hit in Britain.

He had a support role in MGM's Soldiers Three (1951) similar to those early in his career. Niven had a far better part in the British war film, Appointment with Venus (1952) which was popular in England. The Lady Says No (1952) was a poorly received American comedy.


Niven decided to try Broadway, appearing opposite Gloria Swanson in Nina (1951–52). The play only ran for 45 performances but it was seen by Otto Preminger who decided to cast Niven in the film version of the play The Moon Is Blue (1953). As preparation, Preminger, who had directed the play in New York, insisted that Niven appear on stage in the West Coast run. The Moon Is Blue, a sex comedy, became notorious when it was released without a Production Code Seal of Approval; it was a big hit and Niven won a Golden Globe Award for his role.

Niven also became heavily involved in American TV as a partner in Four Star Television, a company he established with Dick Powell and Charles Boyer. It ended up producing a considerable number of shows, in several of which Niven appeared.

Niven's next few films were made in England: The Love Lottery (1954), a comedy; Carrington V.C. (1954), a drama which earned Niven a BAFTA nomination for Best Actor; Happy Ever After (1954), a comedy with Yvonne de Carlo which was hugely popular in Britain.

In Hollywood he had a thankless role as the villain in an MGM swashbuckler The King's Thief (1955). He had a better part in The Birds and the Bees (1956), playing a conman, and in the British The Silken Affair (1956).

Around the World in 80 Days

Niven's professional fortunes were completely restored when cast as Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days (1956), a huge hit at the box office.

He followed it with Oh, Men! Oh, Women! (1957); The Little Hut (1957), from the writer of The Moon is Blue and a success at the box office; My Man Godfrey (1957), a screwball comedy; and Bonjour Tristesse (1958), for Preminger.

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, Ida Lupino, Dick Powell and Charles Boyer. The show ended in 1955, but Four Star TV became a highly successful TV production company.

Separate Tables

David Niven 1958
Drawing of Niven commemorating his 1958 Oscar win for Separate Tables.

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 his appearance in 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."[12]

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 played the lead in some comedies: Ask Any Girl (1959), with Shirley MacLaine; Happy Anniversary (1959) with Mitzi Gaynor; and Please Don't Eat the Daisies (1960) with Doris Day, a big hit.

International star

Even more popular was the action film The Guns of Navarone (1961). This seemed to lead to him being cast in war and/or action movies: The Captive City (1962); The Best of Enemies (1962); Guns of Darkness (1962); 55 Days at Peking (1963) with Charlton Heston.

Niven returned to comedy with The Pink Panther (1963), another huge success at the box office. Less so was the comedy Bedtime Story (1964) with Marlon Brando.

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 made two films for MGM: Lady L, supporting Paul Newman and Sophia Loren, and Where the Spies Are, as a doctor turned secret agent - MGM hoped it would lead to a series but this did not happen. After a horror film Eye of the Devil (1966) Niven appeared as James Bond 007 in Casino Royale (1967). 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.[25] Niven was the only James Bond actor mentioned by name in the text of a Fleming novel. In chapter 14 of You Only Live Twice, 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.

Niven made some popular comedies, Prudence and the Pill (1968) and The Impossible Years (1968). Less widely seen was The Extraordinary Seaman (1969). The Brain (1969), a French comedy with Bourvil and Jean Paul Belmondo was the most popular film at the French box office in 1969 but was not widely seen in English speaking countries.

He did a war drama Before Winter Comes (1969) then returned to comedy in The Statue (1971).

Later career

Niven was in demand throughout the last decade of his life: King, Queen, Knave (1972); Vampira (1974); Paper Tiger (1975); No Deposit, No Return (1976), a Disney comedy; Murder by Death (1976), one of several stars in a popular comedy; Candleshoe (1977), again for Disney; Death on the Nile (1978), one of many stars and another hit; A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square (1979); Escape to Athena (1979), produced by his son; Rough Cut (1980), supporting Burt Reynolds; and The Sea Wolves (1980), a wartime adventure movie.

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?"[26]

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.

Last films

His last sizeable film part was in Better Late Than Never (1983). 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.[4] 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.

Personal life

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 the age of 28, only six weeks after the family moved to the US. She fractured her skull in 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 to be a closet, but instead, it led to a stone staircase to the basement.[27][28]

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.[12]

David Niven at CPH
David Niven with his family at Copenhagen Airport (5 August 1958)

In New York, Niven and Hjördis were next-door neighbours with Audrey Hepburn, who made her début 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, but later reconciled, although their alcoholism, his frequent adultery and her violent temper made the marriage rather miserable.

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.[29][30] 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.[31] Niven divided his time in the 1960s and 1970s between Château-d'Œx and Cap Ferrat on the Côte d'Azur in the south of France.[29]

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, 20 years his junior.[32]

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, or "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 aged 73, the same day as his The Prisoner of Zenda and A Matter of Life and Death co-star Raymond Massey.[33][34][35] Niven is buried in Château-d'Œx cemetery, Switzerland.[36]


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, David Frost, Joanna Lumley, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Lord Olivier.[37]

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.'"[38]

In 1985, Niven was included in a series of British postage stamps, along with Sir Alfred Hitchcock, Sir Charles Chaplin, Peter Sellers and Vivien Leigh, to commemorate "British Film Year".[39]


  • Niven, David (1951). Round the Rugged Rocks. London: The Cresset Press.
  • Niven, David (1971). The Moon's a Balloon. London: Hamish Hamilton. ISBN 0-340-15817-4.
  • Niven, David (1975). Bring on the Empty Horses. Hamish Hamilton. ISBN 0-241-89273-2.
  • Niven, David (1981). Go Slowly, Come Back Quickly. Hamish Hamilton. ISBN 0-241-10690-7.


  1. ^ Niven, (James) David Graham (1910–1983), actor and author. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 8 April 2008.
  2. ^ "Obituaries". The Times. 30 July 1983.
  3. ^ Morley, Sheridan (1997). David Niven, Brief Lives. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 413. ISBN 0198600879.
  4. ^ a b Morley, Sheridan (1985). The Other Side of the Moon. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. ISBN 0-340-39643-1.
  5. ^ Lundy, Darryl. "Captain William Degacher". The Peerage.
  6. ^ The Times, "Marriages", 26 October 1888
  7. ^ The Times, 18 February 1874, p. 1
  8. ^ "Casualty details—Niven, William Edward Graham". Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 4 September 2009.
  9. ^ Massingberd, Hugh. It's being so cheerful that keeps me going. 15 November 2003. Spectator Book Club. Accessed 25 May 2009
  10. ^ a b c Lundy, Darryl. "Person Page 18314". Thepeerage.com. Retrieved 27 September 2012.
  11. ^ An artist, she created the bronze sculpture called the Bessie that is presented to the Orange Prize for Fiction winner.
  12. ^ a b c d e f David Niven (1971). The Moon's a Balloon. London: Hamish Hamilton. ISBN 0-340-15817-4.
  13. ^ "No. 33575". The London Gazette (Supplement). 31 January 1930. pp. 651–652.
  14. ^ "No. 33907". The London Gazette. 31 January 1933. p. 674.
  15. ^ "No. 33975". The London Gazette. 5 September 1933. p. 5801.
  16. ^ Eforgan, E. (2010) Leslie Howard: The Lost Actor. London: Vallentine Mitchell; p. 94 ISBN 978-0-85303-971-6
  17. ^ Friedrich, Otto (1986). City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. p. 28. ISBN 0-520-20949-4.
  18. ^ "No. 34823". The London Gazette (Supplement). 5 September 1933. p. 1978.
  19. ^ https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/five-film-stars-wartime-roles
  20. ^ https://www.thevintagenews.com/2016/08/18/david-niven-british-star-hollywood-enlist-world-war-2/2
  21. ^ "No. 37340". The London Gazette (Supplement). 8 November 1945. p. 5461.
  22. ^ "Recommendation for Award for Niven, John David Rank: Lieutenant Colonel" (fee usually required to view full pdf of original recommendation). DocumentsOnline. The National Archives. Retrieved 7 April 2009.
  23. ^ "No. 37340". The London Gazette (Supplement). 6 November 1945. p. 5461.
  24. ^ "David Niven's Own Story". The Australian Women's Weekly. National Library of Australia. 15 September 1971. p. 15. Retrieved 7 July 2012.
  25. ^ "Ian Fleming, Author or Spy?". Retrieved 24 August 2007.
  26. ^ "Oscar streaker". YouTube. Retrieved 24 September 2010.
  27. ^ Karin J. Fowler (1995) David Niven: a Bio-Biography, Greenwood Press. ISBN 978-0313280443
  28. ^ Sunday Times (Perth, WA : 1902–1954) "David Niven's wife in death crash" 26 May 1946, P.3 Retrieved 12 January 2016
  29. ^ a b Michael Munn (20 March 2014). David Niven: The Man Behind the Balloon. Aurum Press. pp. 197–. ISBN 978-1-78131-372-5.
  30. ^ Karin J. Fowler (1 January 1995). David Niven: A Bio-bibliography. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 167–. ISBN 978-0-313-28044-3.
  31. ^ George Greenfield (1 January 1995). A Smattering of Monsters: A Kind of Memoir. Camden House. pp. 187–. ISBN 978-1-57113-071-6.
  32. ^ Munn, Michael (24 May 2009)."Oh God, I wanted her to die", Archived 6 January 2010 at the Wayback Machine The Sunday Times, Retrieved 29 May 2009.
  33. ^ Donnelley, Paul (2003). Fade to Black: A Book of Movie Obituaries. Music Sales Group. p. 522. ISBN 0-711-99512-5.
  34. ^ Pace, Eric (30 July 1983). "David Niven Dead at 73; Witty Actor Won Oscar". nytimes.com. p. 1.
  35. ^ Pace, Eric (30 July 1983). "David Niven Dead at 73; Witty Actor Won Oscar". nytimes.com. p. 2.
  36. ^ Brooks, Patricia; Brooks, Jonathan (2006). Laid to Rest in California: A Guide to the Cemeteries and Grave Sites of the Rich and Famous. Globe Pequot. p. 522. ISBN 0-762-74101-5.
  37. ^ Niv by Graham Lord, Orion, 2004, p. 420
  38. ^ "In Thespian Praise of: David Niven". Paulburgin.blogspot.com. 25 January 2006. Retrieved 24 September 2010.
  39. ^ Walker, Alexander. Vivien, The Life of Vivien Leigh, pp 303, 304. Grove Press, 1987.

External links

Ask Any Girl (film)

Ask Any Girl is a 1959 American romantic comedy film produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer starring David Niven, Shirley MacLaine, and Gig Young.

Beloved Enemy

For the 1994 novel of the same title, see Beloved Enemy (Ellen Jones)Beloved Enemy is a 1936 American drama film directed by H.C. Potter and starring Merle Oberon, Brian Aherne, and David Niven. It was loosely based on the life of Michael Collins.

Bonjour Tristesse (film)

Bonjour Tristesse (French "Hello, Sadness") is a 1958 British-American Technicolor film in CinemaScope, directed and produced by Otto Preminger from a screenplay by Arthur Laurents based on the novel of the same title by Françoise Sagan. The film stars Deborah Kerr, David Niven, Jean Seberg, Mylène Demongeot and Geoffrey Horne, and features Juliette Gréco, Walter Chiari, Martita Hunt and Roland Culver. It was released by Columbia Pictures. This film had colour and black and white sequences, a technique unusual for the 1950s but widely used in silent movies and early talking films.

David Niven Jr.

David Niven Jr. (born 15 December 1942), is a British film producer and film actor, with stints as an executive at Paramount Pictures and Columbia Pictures. He is the son of Oscar-winning actor David Niven and his wife Primula Rollo.

David Niven on screen, stage, radio, record and in print

The British actor David Niven (1910–1983) performed in many genres of light entertainment, including film, radio and theatre. He was also the author of four books: two works of fiction and two autobiographies. Described by Brian McFarlane, writing for the British Film Institute (BFI), as being "of famously debonair manner", Niven's career spanned from 1932 until 1983.

After brief spells as an army officer, whisky salesman and with a horse racing syndicate, he was an uncredited extra in his screen debut in There Goes the Bride; he went on to appear in nearly a hundred films, the last of which was in 1983: Curse of the Pink Panther. During his long film career, he was presented with a Golden Globe Award for his part in The Moon Is Blue (1953) and was nominated for a BAFTA for the titular lead in Carrington V.C. (1955). For his role as Major Pollock in the 1958 film Separate Tables, Niven was awarded the Academy and Golden Globe awards for a performance where "the pain behind the fake polish was moving to observe". According to Sheridan Morley, Niven's other notable works include The Charge of the Light Brigade (1938), The Way Ahead (1944), A Matter of Life and Death (1946)—judged by the BFI to be one of the top twenty British films of all time—The Guns of Navarone (1961) and the role of Sir Charles Litton in three Pink Panther films.Niven lived much of his life in the United States, although upon the outbreak of the Second World War, he returned to Britain to fight, and was re-commissioned as a lieutenant in the Highland Light Infantry. At the end of the war he returned to the US and continued his film work, but increasingly appeared on American radio and television channels, and later on their British counterparts. In the latter medium he appeared frequently in the Four Star Playhouse series, as well as producing some editions. For his roles in both television and on film, Niven was honoured with two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He died in 1983 from a virulent form of motor neurone disease at the age of 73.

Enchantment (1948 film)

Enchantment (1948) is a romantic film starring David Niven and Teresa Wright, directed by Irving Reis, produced by Samuel Goldwyn, and based on the novel Take Three Tenses by Rumer Godden.

Eternally Yours (film)

Eternally Yours is a 1939 American comedy drama film produced and directed by Tay Garnett with Walter Wanger as executive producer, from a screenplay by C. Graham Baker and Gene Towne. The film stars Loretta Young and David Niven, and also features a strong supporting cast including Broderick Crawford, Billie Burke, Eve Arden, ZaSu Pitts, and C. Aubrey Smith. Composer Werner Janssen was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Music.

M (James Bond)

M is a fictional character in Ian Fleming's James Bond book and film series; the character is the Head of the Secret Intelligence Service—also known as MI6—and is Bond's superior. Fleming based the character on a number of people he knew who commanded sections of British intelligence. M has appeared in the novels by Fleming and seven continuation authors, as well as appearing in twenty-four films. In the Eon Productions series of films, M has been portrayed by four actors: Bernard Lee, Robert Brown, Judi Dench and Ralph Fiennes, the incumbent; in the two independent productions, M was played by John Huston, David Niven and Edward Fox.

Paper Tiger (film)

Paper Tiger is a 1975 British film starring David Niven and the child actor who portrayed Teru Tendou in Ganbaron Kazuhito Ando.

Raffles (1939 film)

Raffles is a 1939 American crime comedy film starring David Niven and Olivia de Havilland, and is one of several film adaptations of an 1899 short story collection by E. W. Hornung, The Amateur Cracksman.

Sidney Howard was given credit as co-author of the screenplay with John Van Druten, due to him having been the writer of the 1930 version. Howard had died four months prior to the release of this film. F. Scott Fitzgerald may also have worked on the script, but this is unconfirmed.

Separate Tables (film)

Separate Tables is a 1958 American drama film starring Rita Hayworth, Deborah Kerr, David Niven, Burt Lancaster, and Wendy Hiller, based on two one-act plays by Terence Rattigan that were collectively known by this name. Niven and Hiller won Academy Awards for their performances. The picture was directed by Delbert Mann and adapted for the screen by Rattigan, John Gay and an uncredited John Michael Hayes. Mary Grant and Edith Head designed the film's costumes.

Thank You, Jeeves!

Thank You, Jeeves! is a 1936 comedy film directed by Arthur Greville Collins, written by Stephen Gross and Joseph Hoffman, and starring Arthur Treacher, Virginia Field, David Niven, Lester Matthews, Colin Tapley and John Graham Spacey. It was released on October 4, 1936, by 20th Century Fox.

The Bishop's Wife

The Bishop's Wife, also known as Cary and the Bishop's Wife, is a Samuel Goldwyn romantic comedy feature film from 1947, starring Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven in a story about an angel who helps a bishop with his problems. The film was adapted by Leonardo Bercovici and Robert E. Sherwood from the 1928 novel of the same name by Robert Nathan, and was directed by Henry Koster.

It was remade in 1996 as The Preacher's Wife starring Denzel Washington, Whitney Houston, and Courtney B. Vance.

The Dick Powell Show

The Dick Powell Show is an American anthology series that ran on NBC from 1961 to 1963, primarily sponsored by the Reynolds Metals Company. It was hosted by longtime film star Dick Powell until his death from lung cancer on January 2, 1963, then by a series of guest hosts (under the revised title The Dick Powell Theater) until the series ended. The first of these hosts was Gregory Peck, who began the January 8 program with a tribute to Powell, recognizing him as "a great and good friend to our industry." Peck was followed by fellow actors such as Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, Ronald Reagan, Glenn Ford, Charles Boyer, Jackie Cooper, Rock Hudson, Milton Berle, Jack Lemmon, Dean Martin, Robert Taylor, Steve McQueen, David Niven, Danny Thomas, Robert Wagner, and John Wayne.

The Elusive Pimpernel

The Elusive Pimpernel is a 1950 British period adventure film by the British-based director-writer team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, based on the novel The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905) by Baroness Emmuska Orczy. It was released in the United States under the title The Fighting Pimpernel. The film stars David Niven as Sir Percy Blakeney (a.k.a. The Scarlet Pimpernel), Margaret Leighton as Marguerite Blakeney and features Jack Hawkins, Cyril Cusack and Robert Coote. Originally intended to be a musical, the film was re-worked as a light-hearted drama.

The Guns of Navarone (film)

The Guns of Navarone is a 1961 British-American epic adventure war film directed by J. Lee Thompson. The screenplay by producer Carl Foreman was based on Alistair MacLean's 1957 novel The Guns of Navarone, which was inspired by the Battle of Leros during the Dodecanese Campaign of World War II. The film stars Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn, along with Stanley Baker, Anthony Quayle, Irene Papas, Gia Scala, and James Darren. The book and the film share the same basic plot: the efforts of an Allied commando unit to destroy a seemingly impregnable German fortress that threatens Allied naval ships in the Aegean Sea.

The King's Thief

The King's Thief is a 1955 swashbuckling CinemaScope adventure film directed by Robert Z. Leonard, who replaced Hugo Fregonese during filming. Released on August 5, 1955, the film takes place in London at the time of Charles II and stars Ann Blyth, Edmund Purdom, David Niven, George Sanders and Roger Moore.

The Pink Panther (1963 film)

The Pink Panther is a 1963 American comedy film directed by Blake Edwards and co-written by Edwards and Maurice Richlin, starring David Niven, Peter Sellers, Robert Wagner, Capucine and Claudia Cardinale. The film introduced the cartoon character of the same name, in an opening credits sequence animated by DePatie-Freleng Enterprises.

The film was selected in 2010 to be preserved by the Library of Congress as part of its National Film Registry, being deemed "culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant."

Vampira (1974 film)

Vampira (also known as Old Dracula) is a 1974 British comedy horror film directed by Clive Donner and starring David Niven and Teresa Graves. It spoofs the vampire genre. Following the success of Young Frankenstein, Vampira was re-titled Old Dracula for release in the United States in an attempt to cash in on its success.

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