David Graham Niven was born on the 1st March 1910. The son a British
Army Lieutenant who was killed in the battle of Gallipoli in 1915, he
was shipped off to a succession of boarding schools by his stepfather,
who didn't care much for the boy. Young Niven hated the experience and
was a poor student, but his late father's reputation helped him get
admitted to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, and he was later
commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Highland Light Infantry. Rakishly
handsome and naturally charming, Lt. Niven met a number of high society
whilst stationed in Malta, and, through their auspices, made several
important contacts while attending parties.
he later claimed to have been nothing more than a ‘professional
guess’ at this stage of his life, Niven was actually excellent
company, a superb raconteur, a loyal friend, and he paid back his social
obligations by giving lavish parties of his own once he became famous.
Niven also insisted that he fell into acting without any prior interest,
although he had done amateur theatricals in college.
his military discharge, Niven wandered the world working odd jobs ranging
from a lumberjack, to a gunnery instructor for Cuban revolutionaries
and finally (by his own accounts) a petty thief. He became a Hollywood
extra in 1935, and eventually came to the attention of producer Samuel
Goldwyn, who had been building up a stable of attractive young contract
players. Having made his speaking debut in 'Without Regret' (1935),
Niven quickly learned how to successfully get through a movie scene.
After several secondary roles for Goldwyn, he was loaned out for a lead
role in the 20th Century Fox feature 'Thank You, Jeeves' (1936). The
actor formed lasting friendships with several members of Hollywood's
British community, notably Errol Flynn, with whom he briefly lived.
He also became quite popular with the American-born contingent as well
as with the ladies.
to do something more substantial than act during World War II he was
one of the first Brits to return home and to voluteer for active service
when war was declared; re-entering the British army as a Lieutenant
Colonel where he served with distimction. His batman (valet) during
the war was a Pvt. Peter Ustinov, who was later to become a great British
actor himself, and would then be knighted for his services to Queen
this period he also managed to make some films. He was the pilot who
first flies the Spitfire in 'The First of the Few' (1942), and he gave
one of his finest performances as Lt Jim Perry in 'The Way Ahead' (1944)
where he plays a garage mechanic who is commissioned and put in charge
of training a bunch of raw recruits. On an aside he was also a crucial
technical adviser to director Carol Reed.
by the end of the war, Niven went back to films but found that he still
wasn't getting any important roles; despite ten years experience, he
was considered too 'lightweight' to be a major name. His life was than
momentarily shattered by the death of his wife in 1946, Niven's spirit
was restored by his second marriage to Swedish model Hjordis Tersmeden,
his wife of 37 years until the actor's death. Once again, Niven took
a self-deprecating attitude towards his domestic life, claiming to be
a poor husband and worse father, but despite the time spent away from
his family, they cherished his concern and affection for them.