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James David Graham Niven (1 March 1910 – 29 July 1983), known as David Niven, was an Englishmarker actor and novelist, best known for his roles as Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days and Sir Charles Litton, a.k.a. "the Phantom," in The Pink Panther.

Early life

David Niven was born in Londonmarker, Englandmarker. He was the son of William Edward Graham Niven (1878 - 1915) and Henrietta Julia Degacher. He was named David for his birth on Saint David's Day. Niven often claimed that he was born in Kirriemuirmarker, in the county of Angusmarker in 1909, but after his death, his birth certificate showed this was not true.

Henrietta was of Frenchmarker and Britishmarker ancestry. She was born in Walesmarker, the daughter of army officer William Degacher and Julia Caroline, daughter of Lieutenant General James Webber Smith. Her father, born William Hitchcock, had assumed his mother's maiden name of Degacher in 1874.

William Niven, David Niven's legal father, was of Scottishmarker descent; his paternal grandfather, David Graham Niven, (1811-1884) was from St. Martins, a village in Perthshiremarker. 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.

David's mother Henrietta then married Sir Thomas Comyn-Platt. Graham Lord, in NIV: The Authorized Biography of David Niven, suggested that Comyn-Platt and Mrs. Niven had been having an affair for some time before her husband's death, and that Sir Thomas may well have been David Niven's biological father, a supposition which has some support from her children. Michael Munn, in his 2009 biography of Niven, claimed that Niven himself confirmed Comyn-Platt was his father in an interview taped in 1982. A reviewer of Lord's book stated that Lord's photographic evidence showing a strong physical resemblance between Niven and Comyn-Platt "would appear to confirm these theories, though photographs can often be misleading." Niven's son, David Niven Junior, commenting on Munn's book in the Daily Mail said, "why, if Michael Munn was such a good friend, did he never introduce him to us? [...] Everyone featured in these stories is conveniently dead, so we can't ask them to verify them.". Other commentators have queried the authenticity of Munn's alleged interviews with Niven after Munn claimed that the disputed, taped interviews no longer exist because they were mangled by his tape recorder.

David Niven had three older siblings: Margaret Joyce ("Joyce"; born in Geneva 5 January 1900); Henry Degacher ("Max"; born in Buckland, Faringdon, Berkshire 29 June 1902), and Grizel Rosemary Graham (born in Belgrave, London 28 November 1906).

Education and military service

English public schools at the time of Niven's boyhood were marked for their heavy-handed discipline. Niven himself suffered many instances of corporal punishment owing to his inclination for pranks, which finally led to his expulsion from Heatherdown at the age of 10 and a half. This ended his chances for Eton, a significant blow to his family. He was sent to reform school, where the brutality reached Dickensian proportions, Niven later recounted. After cramming and failing to pass the naval entrance exam due to his difficulty with maths, Niven attended Stowemarker, a newly created public school led by headmaster J.F. Roxburgh. Roxburgh was unlike any headmaster Niven had experienced. Thoughtful and kind, he addressed the boys by their first name, 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 he and what he did were of real importance to the headmaster". He then attended the Royal Military College at Sandhurstmarker, and graduated in 1930 with a commission as a second lieutenant in the regular Army. He did well at Sandhurst, which gave him the "officer and gentleman" bearing that was to be his trademark.

Being Scottish, he requested assignment to the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders or the Black Watch; 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, and his comment was known in the regiment. Thus Niven did not enjoy his time in the Army. He served with the HLI for two years in Maltamarker, and then for a few months in Dovermarker. In Malta, he became friends with Roy Urquhart, future commander of the British 1st Airborne Division.

Niven grew tired of the peacetime Army. Though promoted lieutenant on January 1 1933, 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."

After being placed under close arrest for this act of insubordination, Niven finished a bottle of whisky with the officer who was guarding him and (with his connivance) escaped from a first-floor window. He then headed for Americamarker. While crossing the Atlanticmarker, Niven resigned his commission by telegram on 6 September 1933. Niven relocated to New Yorkmarker, where he began an unsuccessful career in whisky sales and horse rodeo promotion in Atlantic Citymarker. After subsequent detours to Bermudamarker and Cubamarker, he finally arrived in Hollywoodmarker in the summer of 1934.

Early film career

When Niven presented himself at the doors of Central Casting, he found out that he had to have a work permit, to allow him to reside and work in the U.S.

This meant that Niven had to leave U.S. soil, and he left for Mexicomarker, 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 England. He then returned to the U.S. and was accepted by Central Casting as "Anglo-Saxon Type No. 2008."

His first work as an extra was as a Mexican in a Western. This inauspicious start notwithstanding, he then found himself an agent: Bill Hawks. He had several bit parts in 1933, 1934, and 1935, including a non-speaking part in MGM's Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), which led to some fortuitous publicity.

Niven thus came to the attention of independent film producer Samuel Goldwyn, who signed him to a contract and established his career. Niven appeared in 19 movies in the next four years. He had supporting roles in several major films: Rose-Marie (1936), Dodsworth (1936), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937); and leading roles in The Dawn Patrol (1938), Three Blind Mice (1938), and Wuthering Heights (1939), playing opposite such famous stars as Errol Flynn, Loretta Young, and Laurence Olivier. In 1939 he co-starred with Ginger Rogers in the RKO comedy Bachelor Mother, andstarred as the eponymous gentleman thief in Raffles.

Niven joined what became known as the Hollywood Raj, a group of British actors in Hollywood. Other members of the group included Boris Karloff, Stan Laurel, Basil Rathbone, Ronald Colman, and C. Aubrey Smith. He and Errol Flynn shared a house, which they dubbed "Cirrhosis-by-the-Sea".

World War II service

After the United Kingdom declared war in 1939, Niven returned to Britain and rejoined the Army. He was re-commissioned as a lieutenant in the Rifle Brigade on 25 February 1940, and was assigned to a motor training battalion. But he wanted something more exciting, and transferred into the Commando. He was assigned to a training base at Inverailort Housemarker in the Western Highlands. Niven later claimed credit for bringing future Major General Sir Robert Laycock to the Commandos.

Niven also worked with the Army Film Unit. He acted in two films during the war, The First of the Few (1942) and The Way Ahead (1944). Both films were made to win support for the British war effort, especially in the U.S. His Film Unit work included a small part in the deception operation that used minor actor M. E. Clifton James to impersonate Field Marshal Montgomery.

During his war service, his batman was Private Peter Ustinov (who also appeared in The Way Ahead). Ustinov later appeared with Niven in Death on the Nile (1978).

Niven took part in the Invasion of Normandymarker, arriving several days after D-Day. He served in the "Phantom Signals Unit", which located and reported enemy positions, and kept rear commanders up to date on changing battle lines. Niven was posted at one time to Chilhammarker in Kentmarker. Eisenhower was so disappointed with communications difficulty on D-Day that he personally ordered a Phantom Unit to be attached to his headquarters.

Niven remained close-mouthed about the war, despite public interest in celebrities in combat and a reputation for storytelling. He said once: "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 Bastognemarker. 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 also had special scorn for the 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."

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!"

Niven ended the war as a Lieutenant-Colonel. On his return to Hollywood after the war, he received the Legion of Merit, the highest American order that can be earned by a foreigner. Presented by Eisenhower himself, it honored Niven's work in setting up the BBC Allied Expeditionary Forces Programme, a radio news and entertainment station for the Allied forces.

Post-war acting career

In spite of a six-year absence from the screen, Niven came second in the 1945 Popularity Poll of British film stars.

He resumed his career in 1946, now only in starring roles. A Matter of Life and Death (1946), The Bishop's Wife (1947), and Enchantment (1948) are all highly regarded. In 1950 he starred in The Elusive Pimpernel, which was made in Britain and was to be distributed by Samuel Goldwyn. Goldwyn pulled out, and the film did not appear in the U.S. for three years.

Niven had a long and 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 in the 1950s.

During this period Niven was largely barred from the Hollywood studios. In 1951 to 1956, he made 11 movies, of which two were MGM productions, and the rest were low-budget British or independent productions. However, Niven won a Golden Globe Award for his work in The Moon Is Blue (1953), produced and directed by Otto Preminger.

In 1955 renowned British photographer Cornel Lucas shot David Niven whilst filming at the Rank Film Studio in Denham. These images can be seen at The Cornel Lucas Collection and are now for most of us the iconic representation of the way in which we remember Niven. A limited edition of British postage stamps was produced using one of Cornel Lucas' images taken during this portrait sitting.

Niven also worked in television. Niven 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 by Niven, Robert Montgomery, and Charles Boyer. The show ended in 1955, but Four Star TV became a highly successful TV production company.

Niven's film career took off in 1956, when he starred as Phileas Fogg in Michael Todd's immensely successful production of Around the World in 80 Days.

He appeared in 13 more TV episodes. He won the 1958 Academy Award for Best Actor in Separate Tables; ironically, he was also a co-host of the 1959 "Oscar" show.

After Niven 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 that he had sent to Goldwyn from England during World War II. In happier times with Goldwyn, he had observed this same picture sitting on Goldwyn's piano. Now years later, the picture was still in the exact same spot. As he was looking at the picture, Goldwyn's wife Frances said "Sam never took it down."

With an Academy Award to his credit, Niven's career continued to improve. In 1959, he became the host of his own TV drama series, The David Niven Show, which ran for 13 episodes that summer.

Over the rest of his career, Niven appeared in over thirty additional movies. These included The Guns Of Navarone (1961), and The Pink Panther (1963), Murder By Death (1976), Death on the Nile (1978), and The Sea Wolves (1980), but also a lot of unmemorable films.

In 1964, he was cast (along with Boyer) 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 1967, he appeared as one of seven incarnations of "007" in the James Bond spoof Casino Royale. In fact, 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.

Niven was the only James Bond actor mentioned by name in the text of Fleming's novels. In On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Bond visits an exclusive ski resort in Switzerlandmarker where he is told that David Niven is a frequent visitor and in You Only Live Twice, David Niven is referred to as the only real gentleman in Hollywood.

Niven co-starred with Peter Sellers five times; however, in two instances (Casino Royale and The Trail of the Pink Panther), the two actors never actually met. In Casino Royale, Niven was called in after Sellers walked off the set, and in The Trail of the Pink Panther he filmed his sequences after Sellers' death. Niven and Sellers were seen on-screen together in Murder by Death.

While 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?"

In 1974, he hosted David Niven's World for London Weekend Television. This was a series of profiles of 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.

In 1979, he appeared in Escape to Athena, which was produced by his son David jr.

Also in 1979, Niven starred in the television miniseries A Man Called INTREPID, based on the supposed memoir of Sir William Stephenson, a Canadianmarker master spy for British intelligence. (In fact the book was mostly invented by co-author William Stevenson (no relation), Sir William then being very old.)

In July 1982, Blake Edwards brought Niven back for cameo appearances in two final "Pink Panther" movies (Trail of the Pink Panther and Curse of the Pink Panther), reprising his role as Sir Charles Litton. 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 was not told of this - he learned it from a newspaper report. This was his last film appearance.


Niven wrote four books. The first, Round the Rugged Rocks, was a novel which 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 highly entertaining reminiscences from Hollywood's "Golden Age" in the 1940s. It now appears that Niven recounted many incidents from a first person perspective which actually happened to other people, and which he borrowed and embroidered. In 1981, Niven published a second and much more successful novel, Go Slowly, Come Back Quickly, which was set during and after World War II, and drew on his experiences during the war and in Hollywood. He was working on a third novel when his health failed in 1983.


After a whirlwind two-week romance in 1940, Niven married Primula Susan Rollo (18 February 1918, London - 21 May 1946, Beverly Hills, Californiamarker), the aristocratic daughter of a British lawyer. The couple had two sons, David Jr. and Jamie. Primula, whom he called Primmie, died at age 28, only six weeks after moving to the U.S., of a fractured skull and brain lacerations from an accidental fall in the home of Tyrone Power. While playing hide and seek, she walked through a door believing it led to a closet. Instead, it led to a stone staircase to the basement.

Niven recalled this as the darkest period of his life, years afterwards thanking his friends for their patience and forbearance during this time. He later claimed to have been so grief-stricken that he thought for a while that he'd gone mad. Following a suicide attempt involving a handgun that failed to go off, he eventually rallied and returned to film making. He told his biographer Michael Munn that he needed to remarry quickly for his sons' sake: "I needed someone in my life. I was used to having someone special. And my sons needed someone to be a mother to them."

In 1948, Niven met Hjördis Paulina Tersmeden (née Genberg, 1921–1997), a divorced Swedish fashion model. The moment of his meeting her was recounted by Niven in what might be a classic example of his writing style:

I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life tall, slim, auburn hair, uptilted 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.

They married six weeks later. Unfortunately, Niven's second marriage was as unhappy as his first marriage had been happy. The multiple adulteries of both partners were detailed in the 2009 biography, David Niven: The Man Behind the Balloon.

In what turned out to be an unsuccessful effort to bring harmony to the marriage, they adopted two girls, Kristina and Fiona. Kristina later told biographer Graham Lord that she was convinced that she was Niven's secret child by another fashion model, Mona Gunnarson. In 2009, biographer Michael Munn revealed that both Niven and his wife had separately confirmed that Kristina, born in 1960 or 1961, was his child by an 18-year-old Swiss woman, though she was represented as a Swedish orphan. Fiona was adopted as a four-month-old infant in 1963 or 1964.

All four of Niven's children, as well as many of his friends, told Lord that Hjördis, unable to achieve an acting career, had affairs with other men and became an alcoholic. Munn's interviews confirmed that Hjördis had had many affairs, including an extremely brief chlamydia-tainted contact with John F. Kennedy, but his informants revealed that David Niven's affairs both outnumbered and inspired hers, naming Grace Kelly and Princess Margaret as among his partners. Munn's book also asserts that Niven refused to allow Hjördis to act because he had married her in part because he specifically did not want to have an actress-wife.

In October 1951, while pheasant shooting with friends in New Englandmarker, Hjördis was shot in the face, neck and chest by two of Niven's companions. While convalescing in the Blackstone Hotel in New York, Niven and Hjördis were next door neighbors with Audrey Hepburn, who made her debut 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, though they later reconciled.

Hjördis recovered from her alcoholism after Niven's death in 1983, but returned to it before her own death of a stroke in 1997. She was 76. At her specific request, she is not buried next to Niven.

Niven had four grandchildren:

  • Fernanda and Eugenia, Jamie's daughters
  • Ryan (b. 1998), Fiona's son
  • Michael (b. 1990), Kristina's son


In 1980, Niven began experiencing fatigue, muscle weakness, and a warble in his voice. A 1981 interview on Michael Parkinson's talk show alarmed family and friends; viewers wondered if Niven had either been drinking or suffered a stroke. (Another 1981 interview, posted on YouTube, shows Niven on The Merv Griffin Show while publicizing his novel Go Slowly, Come Back Quickly. He blames his slightly slurred voice on the shooting schedule on the film he'd been making; Better Late Than Never.) He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's Disease) later that year. He hosted the 1981 American Film Institute tribute to Fred Astaire, which was his final appearance in Hollywood.

In February 1983, using a false name to avoid publicity, Niven was hospitalised for ten days for treatment, ostensibly for a digestive problem. Afterwards, he returned to his chalet at Chateau d'Oex in Switzerlandmarker, where his condition continued to decline. He refused to return to the hospital, and his family supported his decision. Niven died of ALS on 29 July 1983, at age 73.

Bitter, estranged, and plagued by depression, Hjördis showed up drunk at the funeral, having been persuaded to attend by family friend Prince Rainier III of Monaco. Kristina and Fiona told Graham Lord that Hjördis added insult to injury by forbidding them to bury her alongside her husband in the place left for her in his double grave in Switzerland.

Lord wrote that "the biggest wreath, worthy of a Mafia Godfather's funeral, was delivered from the porters at London's Heathrow Airportmarker, along with a card that read: 'To the finest gentleman who ever walked through these halls. He made a porter feel like a king.'"

Niven died on the same day as Raymond Massey, his co-star in The Prisoner of Zenda and A Matter of Life and Death.

Other Media


By Niven:

  • "It really is amazing. Can you imagine being wonderfully overpaid for dressing up and playing games? It's like being Peter Pan."

  • "I've been lucky enough to win an Oscar, write a best-seller — my other dream would be to have a painting in the Louvremarker. The only way that's going to happen is if I paint a dirty one on the wall of the gentlemen's lavatory."

  • When asked why he seemed so incredibly cheerful all the time: "Well, old bean, life is really so bloody awful that I feel it’s my absolute duty to be chirpy and try and make everybody else happy too."

About Niven:

  • "I don't think his acting ever quite achieved the brilliance or the polish of his dinner-party conversations." — John Mortimer

  • "David's life was Wodehouse with tears." John Mortimer speaking at Niven's memorial service, quoted by Niven biographer Graham Lord.

  • "Niv was the twinkling star, the meteor who lit up every room he entered; I am just the dreary drudge whose job it is to try to tell the truth." — Niven biographer Graham Lord, in the preface to his book Niv.



  • Niven, David (1951). Round the Rugged Rocks. London: The Cresset Press.


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