David Niven's best known film roles are probably The Pink Panther
series (despite being overshadowed
by Peter Sellers
as Inspector Clouseau) and The Guns Of Navarone
, but mostly he's famous for being, by a considerable margin, the most English man ever to go to Hollywood.
Before becoming an actor, Niven was an officer in the peacetime British Army; when the Second World War
started, he rejoined for the duration. A measure of his popularity and success is that after seven years of war, during which he appeared in only two films (both government-sponsored propaganda pieces), he was still the second most popular film star in Britain. It was probably the moustache.
In most of his films Niven played a somewhat effete British gentleman, and looked distinctly out of place in his occasional action roles; this despite the fact that he spent much of the war as a commando.Ian Fleming
considered him the ideal actor for the role of James Bond
. He only played him once, in Casino Royale 1967
, which most people don't know, and many of those who know it think it doesn't count, being a comedy. Anyone interested in the Golden age of Hollywood should read his memoirs, The Moon's a Balloon
and Bring On The Empty Horses
Tropes associated with David Niven:
- An Officer and a Gentleman: Niven played a bunch of 'em, but proved to be an aversion in Real Life. Known for his rebellious sense of humor, he was very much a square peg in a round hole, so he resigned his commission, wandered off to Hollywood and found work as a extra. Ironically, his first major speaking role was as the young Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim in the definitive 1937 film adaption of The Prisoner of Zenda. When he rejoined the service in WWII he was posted to the Commandos with a lot of other mavericks.
- Aside Glance: One of his trademarks.
- Comic Book Fantasy Casting: The appearance of Sinestro was based on Niven.
- Crowning Moment of Awesome: While presenting at the 1974 Academy Awards a "streaker" somehow gets onstage and runs naked behind him on live television. A startled but amused Niven immediately quipped:
"Well, ladies and gentlemen, that was almost bound to happen. But 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?"
- Deadpan Snarker: When serving in the Second World War, Niven remarked, just before leading his troops into action, "Look, you chaps only have to do this once. But I'll have to do it over again in Hollywood with Errol Flynn."
- Niven's pre-war army career came to an end when a superior officer asked after a lecture if there were any questions. Niven, who was being kept from a date, snarked back, "Do you have the time, sir? I need to catch a train."
- Horsing Around: Niven recounted an amusing anecdote that happened to him while he was filming The Prisoner of Zenda in his memoir The Moon's A Balloon: The director wanted all of his stars mounted on fiery, flashy horses for the royal procession scene. Niven, being an experienced rider, wanted no part of that and bribed the wrangler to give him a nice, safe, gentle mare instead... only to be nearly killed when his nice, safe, gentle mare was mounted by Ronald Colman's stallion.
- Never Speak Ill of the Dead: Despite being known for his incredible wit and love of storytelling, he never spoke about his time in the war. He remarked that he visited the burial site of soldiers and told himself "Here's twenty-seven thousand reasons to keep Your mouth shut".
- No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: After the war England forced Niven to pay ruinous levels of income taxes on all of the money he'd made from his prewar Hollywood films and nearly bankrupted him in a remarkable show of ingratitude for his wartime service.
- Nice to the Waiter: The biggest bunch of flowers at his funeral was sent by the porters at Heathrow Airport. The note with it read: "To the finest gentleman who ever walked through these halls. He made a porter feel like a king."
- Quintessential British Gentleman