David Niven: A Silver Screen Star

Early Life

James David Graham Niven was the youngest among the children of William Edward Graham Niven and Henrietta Julia Niven. He was born on March 1, 1909, in Belgrave Mansions, London. Niven was the youngest among his siblings, namely, Margaret Joyce, Henry Dagacher, and Grizel Rosemary.

His mother, Henrietta, was from Welsh and French ancestry, and daughter of an army officer named William Dagacher. Also,Niven’s father, William, was of Scottish descent who served in the British Army during World War I.

At the age of ten, Niven was expelled from Heatherdown Preparatory School because of his unabating pranks. This expulsion ended his chance of entering Eton College. After he was expelled at Heatherdown, Niven entered Stowe School headed by the schoolmaster named J.F Roxburgh. According to Niven, J.F Roxburgh was thoughtful and kind, unlike his previous schoolmasters. In 1930, Niven graduated atRoyal Military Academy Sandhurst (also known as Sandhurst.) Due to his performance at Sandhurst, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the British Army.

In 1933, although he was promoted as a lieutenant, Niven saw no advancement and grew tired in the army. Before he resigned, he made his final act of insubordination that placed him under close-arrest. He resigned his commission through a telegram in September 1933 after escaping from the officer guarding him.Niven moved to New York and began his whiskey business, though he failed.

 Life as a Star

After his failed business, he moved to Hollywood in 1934. Upon moving, he presented himself at Central Casting. Central Casting is an American casting company that casts extras, doubles, and stand-ins. When he learned that he needed a working permit for working and residing in the US, he went to Mexico.He worked as a gun-manwherehe cleaned and polished guns of the American hunters

After the American consulate issued his resident alien visa, he returned to the Casting Center and was accepted as “Anglo Saxon Type No. 2,008.” In 1935, he had his first appearance in the American drama films, Barbary Coast and Mutiny on the Bounty. Later in the same year, Sam Goldwyn, an independent film producer, offered Niven a contract after seeing him in the film, Mutiny on the Bounty. Goldwyn established Niven’s career and gave him a small role in a drama film, Splendor and later on, the musical film, Rose Marie. In 1936 up to 1938, Niven had a couple of roles in films of various film companies such as Paramount, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, and Universal Studios. In these years, some of his movies were Beloved Enemy; We Have Our Moments, The Prisoner of Zenda, Dinner at Ritz, and Three Blind Mice. In 1939, Niven got the leading role in the hit film, Bachelor Mother, opposite with an American actress, Ginger Rogers.  Moreover, he got the support role in the movie The Real Glory and another leading role in the film Eternally Yours.

Niven returned to Britain in 1939, when Britain declared war on Germany. In 1941, he was then re-commissioned into the Rifle Brigade as a lieutenant. Later on, Niven was transferred to the British Commandos and was assigned at Inverailort House, a training base in the western Highlands.

In 1946, Niven continued his career while in England. He played the leading role in the popular British-fantasy romance film, A Matter of Life and Death. In the later years of 1946, Niven returned to Hollywood and starred on the film, Magnificent Doll. However, when he returned to Hollywood, his later films weren’t that successful, causing a struggle for his career. Some of Niven’s films after he returned to Hollywood were Enchantment, A Kiss in the Dark, and A Kiss for Corliss.

In 1950,Samuel Goldwyn and Niven had an argument regarding‘The Elusive Pimpernel.’Niven and the director Michael Powell weren’t very much interested in the film. But the threat of contract suspension made them changed their minds. This dispute, later on, causes an estrangement to Niven and Goldwyn. Even so, Niven’s career continued in 1952, but his films weren’t that successful in the US. His movies, Happy Go Lovely and Appointment with Venus, were popular in Britain but were poorly received in the US.

However, in 1953, Niven made a comeback in a sex comedy film, The Moon is Blue. Although this film was released without a Production Seal Approval, it became a hit. Also, David Niven’s role in this film, Blue Moon, had earned him a Golden Globe Award. In the following years, Niven’s next films were made in England. Some of these films produced in England were The Love Lottery, Carrington V.C, and a comedy film Happy Ever After.

Niven’s career in 1956 flourished because of his role in the box office film, Around the World in 80 Days. He played as Phileas Fogg, the protagonist based on the 1872 novel of Jules Verne,“Around the World in Eighty Days.” Other successful films followed his success with the Around the World in 80 Days. Some of his hit films in the following years were Oh, Men! Oh, Women! (1957), My Man Godfrey (1957), The Little Hut (1957), and Bonjour Tristesse (1958). In 1958, Niven won an Academy Award for Best Actor and Oscar’s nomination for his role in the film, Separate Tables. In addition to his successful films, Niven was given his own TV drama series with thirteen episodes, The David Niven Show.

Niven continued to strive for his career from 1959 up to the year 1975. One of his notable international films was a comedy film, The Pink Panther. Directed by Blake Edwards, Niven played the role of Sir Charles Lytton, a jewel thief called “The Phantom.” This film released on March 18, 1964, earned a ninety percent approval rating and grossed USD 10.9 million worldwide. In 2010, the Library of Congress deemed this film as aesthetically, historically, and culturally significant.

Niven continued acting until the last decade of his life. He starred in the 1970s films, including King, Queen, Knave (1972), Murder by Death (1976), Escape to Athena (1979), The Sea of Wolves (1980), and Better Late Than Never (1983).


In the year 1981, Niven was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (or Gehrig’s Disease.) This disease is also known as the Motor Neuron Disease that causes the death of brain neurons controlling voluntary muscles.

In 1983 of February, Niven was hospitalized because of a digestive problem. His health continued to decline, but he refused to go to the hospital. On July 29, 1983, Niven died on his chalet, at the age of 73. David Niven’s body was buried in Château-d’Œx cemetery, in Switzerland.