James David Graham Niven was born in London to William Edward Graham Niven (1878–1915) and Henrietta Julia Degacher. He was named David for 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.
Henrietta was of French and British ancestry. She was born in Wales, the daughter of army officer William Degacher (1841–1879) by his marriage to Julia Caroline Smith, the daughter ofLieutenant General James Webber Smith. Niven's grandfather William Degacher was killed in the Battle of Isandlwana (1879), during the Zulu War. 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.
William Niven, David's father, 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.
David's mother Henrietta then married Sir Thomas Comyn-Platt in London in 1917. 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. 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."
David Niven had three older siblings:
- Margaret Joyce (born in Geneva, Switzerland, 5 January 1900 – 18 November 1981)
- Henry Degacher ("Max"; born in Buckland, Berkshire (now Oxfordshire), 29 June 1902 – March 1953)
- Grizel Rosemary Graham (born in Belgravia, Middlesex), 28 November 1906 – 28 January 2007).
The source for the dates and places of birth of the above was William Edward Graham Niven's army service record which, curiously, does not give a place of birth for David, but his birth certificate states Belgrave Mansions, London. The family's country home at Buckland, Carswell Manor, was sold shortly after David's birth.
When Niven presented himself at Central Casting, he learned that he needed a work permit to reside and work in the U.S. This meant that Niven had to leave the U.S., 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 England. He returned to the United States and was accepted by Central Casting as "Anglo-Saxon Type No. 2008".
Due to his role in Mutiny on the Bounty, he came to the attention of independent film producer Samuel Goldwyn, who signed him to a contract and established his career. Niven appeared in 19 films 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 stars as Errol Flynn, Loretta Young and Laurence Olivier. In 1939, he co-starred with Ginger Rogers in the RKO comedy Bachelor Mother, and starred as the eponymous gentleman safe-cracker in Raffles.
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 and C. Aubrey Smith. According to his autobiography, he and Errol Flynn were firm friends and had decided to rent Rosalind Russell's house at 601 North Linden Drive as a bachelor pad. Russell later named the house "Cirrhosis-by-the-Sea".
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 which 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. Between 1951 and 1956 he made 11 films, two of which 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 photographerCornel Lucas photographed Niven while filming at the Rank Film Studio in Denham, Buckinghamshire. A limited edition of British postage stamps was produced using one of Lucas's images taken during this portrait sitting.
Niven also 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, Dick Powell and Charles Boyer. The show ended in 1955, but Four Star TV became a highly successful TV production company.
Niven enjoyed success in 1956, when he starred as Phileas Fogg in Michael Todd's immensely successful production of Around the World in 80 Days.
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 16 minutes in the film, this remains the briefest performance ever to win a Best Actor Oscar. 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 that he had sent to Goldwyn from Britain 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 exactly the 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 thrive. In 1959 he became the host of his own TV drama series, The David Niven Show, which ran for 13 episodes that summer. Niven subsequently appeared in another thirty films. The more memorable ones 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).
In 1964, he and Boyer 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 and also stars Gig Young and later Larry Hagman. 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 Switzerland 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. In the Ian Fleming novel You Only Live Twice, Kissy Suzuki has acormorant who is named "David" after the actor.
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?" 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. In 1979 he appeared in Escape to Athena, which was produced by his son David Jr. 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 was not told of this; he learned it from a newspaper report. This was his last film appearance.
After a whirlwind two-week romance in 1940, Niven married Primula Susan Rollo (18 February 1918, London – 21 May 1946, Beverly Hills, California), 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 "sardines", 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 claimed to have been so grief-stricken that he thought for a while that he had gone mad. Following a suicide attempt involving a handgun that failed to go off, he eventually rallied and returned to filmmaking.
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.
They married six weeks later. However, Niven's second marriage was as tumultuous as his first marriage was content. In an unsuccessful effort to bring harmony to the marriage, he and his wife 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. 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. In October 1951, while pheasant shooting with friends in New England, Hjördis was shot in the face, neck and chest by a member of the hunting party. Local doctors wished to operate immediately to remove the bird shot. However, another doctor advised Niven to allow the swelling of the face to go down. In this way, his wife avoided disfigurement.
While she was convalescing in the Blackstone Hotel 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, 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 at age 78. Niven's friend Billie More noted: "This is not kind, but when Hjördis died I can't think of a single soul who was sorry".
Throughout the 1970s, Niven spent much of his time at his home in Chateau d'Oex in Switzerland, near the ski resort of Gstaad. He had a close group of friends there including actor Roger Moore, writer William F. Buckley Jr. and former US Ambassador to France Evan G. Galbraith. In 1980, Niven began experiencing fatigue, muscle weakness and a warble in his voice. A 1981 interview onMichael 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 onThe 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 had been making: Better Late Than Never.) He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or "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, ostensibly for a digestive problem. Afterwards, he returned to his chalet at Chateau d'Oex, where his condition continued to decline. He refused to return to the hospital, and his family supported his decision. Niven died as a result of ALS on 29 July 1983, at age 73.
Bitter, estranged and plagued by depression, Niven's second wife 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 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.'"
Niven died on the same day as Raymond Massey, his co-star in The Prisoner of Zenda and A Matter of Life and Death.
A Thanksgiving service 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, Sir David Frost, Joanna Lumley, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Lord Olivier.
In 1985, Niven was included in a series of British postage stamps, along with Sir Alfred Hitchcock, Sir Charlie Chaplin, Peter Sellers and Vivien Leigh to commemorate "British Film Year".