In Thespian Praise of: David Niven
Perhaps one of the more underrated British movie actors in Hollywood.
Born in London in 1910, (James) David (Graham) Niven had a troubled home life. His father was killed in the First World War and neither he, nor one of his elder sisters, Grizel (a renowned sculpturess, who is still alive today)had a particularly close relationship with their stepfather, Sir Thomas Comyn-Platt.
He joined the Highland Light Infantry, before resigning his commission and taking up a series of odd jobs, before heading to America and finding work in Hollywood, starting off as an extra known as Anglo Saxon Type B 2008.
His seemingly effortless confidence in mixing with anyone and everyone got him the attention of movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn, and Niven swiftly became a leading actor within five years. That said, his integrity came to the fore when, after his first film to carry his name, Raffles, the Second World War started and Niven felt it was his duty to return home and fight for his country. Goldwyn warned him that he was putting his career in jeapody and that if he came back alive he would never reach the dizzy heights he was expected to make. Niven knew this and yet still set about preparing to return to the UK. It says much about Niven that he was prepared to sacrifice a highly succesful film career and the comforts of Hollywood when he wasn't even called up.
During the War, Niven made only two films and served in the British army, rising to the rank of Lt Colonel and being involved in the War Office, and possibly British intelligence, as well as serving in a British commando force. It was during this time that he met and married his first wife Primmie, the marriage being, according to all who knew them, blissfully happy.
After the War, Niven, his wife and children, returned to Hollywood to receive a heroes welcome, but events took a tragic turn when Primmie was killed after a fall at a Hollywood party. Niven was never the same and he found his relationship with Goldwyn becoming increasingly fractious, before deciding to persuade Goldwyn to release him from his contract in 1950.
After a short lean period, Niven started to shine as an independent film actor. Although he never achieved the success he nearly once had, he was a success in films such as Around the World in Eighty Days, Seperate Tables (for which he won an Oscar for Best Actor), The Guns of Navarone, The Pink Panther, Paper Tiger, Death on the Nile, and The Sea Wolves.
He also played James Bond in the hybrid 1967 Bond movie, Casino Royale, and was considered for the role for the first Bond movie, Doctor No, as his friend Ian Fleming felt that he would be ideal. Whilst Niven didn't have the sharp edges that Sean Connery had, he certainly had the background.
Niven also wrote two bestselling books, which included his memoir, The Moon's a Balloon, which gave him a new lease of fame in the 1970s. However, his personal life was unhappy. His second wife was an alcoholic who consistently verbally hurt and abused him and one of their adoptive daughters was involved, and very nearly died, in a car crash in Switzerland.
But it says much about Niven's character, his seemingly easy ability to be affable and friendly with everyone, that when he died in 1983 following a two-four year battle with Motor Neurone disease, one of the wreaths at his funeral was from the porters at Heathrow Airport. The card read: To the finest gentleman who ever walked through these halls. He made a porter feel like a king.