James David Graham Niven (March 1, 1910 July 29, 1983) is mostly 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. He was just making the leap to movie stardom in 1939 when World War II started; Niven 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 mustache.
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, and he did play him, although that was in a parody film.
Anyone interested in the Golden Age of Hollywood should read his memoirs, The Moon's a Balloon and Bring On The Empty Horses.
Film roles include:
- Capt. Randall in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)
- Capt. Clyde Lockert in Dodsworth (1936)
- Fritz von Tarlenheim in The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)
- Scott in The Dawn Patrol (1938)
- Edgar Linton in Wuthering Heights (1939)
- David Merlin in Bachelor Mother (1939)
- A.J. Raffles in Raffles (1939)
- Squadron Leader Peter Carter in A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
- Rev. Henry Brougham in The Bishop's Wife (1947)
- David Slater in The Moon Is Blue (1953)
- Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)
- Henry in The Little Hut (1957)
- Godfrey Smith in My Man Godfrey (1957)
- Maj. David Pollock in Separate Tables (1958) - Academy Award for Best Actor
- Miles Doughton in Ask Any Girl (1959)
- Cpl. John Anthony Miller in The Guns of Navarone (1961)
- Sir Arthur Robertson in 55 Days at Peking (1963)
- Sir Charles Lytton in The Pink Panther (1963)
- Philippe de Montfaucon in Eye of the Devil (1967)
- James Bond in Casino Royale (1967)
- Colonel Carol Matthews a.k.a. "The Brain" in The Brain (1969)
- J.W. Osborne in No Deposit, No Return (1976)
- Dick Charleston in Murder by Death (1976)
- Priory in Candleshoe (1977)
- Col. Johnny Race in Death on the Nile (1978)
- Professor Blake in Escape to Athena (1979)
Tropes associated with David Niven's work in film and books and with his appereances in media:
- Aside Glance: One of his trademarks.
- Comic-Book Fantasy Casting: The appearance of Sinestro was based on Niven.
- Crazy-Prepared: Niven was presenting at the Academy Awards in 1974, when streaking on college campuses was a fad. He wondered if it was possible that a streaker might make it onstage, and he decided to write down a couple of lines in response, just in case. The rest is history (see immediately below).
- 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."
- 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?"
- He once attended a Can concert, where most of the audience walked out due to the band's extreme music. When asked about what he thought of the performance he said, "It was great, but I didn't know it was music."
- One of the few stories Niven was willing to share about his experiences in World War II came during the Battle of the Bulge. The discovery of German special forces operating behind American lines in American uniforms led American sentries to adopt some arcane security measures. Niven's jeep was stopped by an American soldier guarding an intersection, who demanded to know, "Who won the World Series in 1940?" Niven shot back I havent the faintest idea" (it was the Cincinnati Reds). But I do know that I made a picture with Ginger Rogers in 1938.
- 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.
- Miles Gloriosus: Inverted. Niven flatly refused to discuss his own wartime deeds (apart from some humorous anecdotes in his books) and was enraged by "war stories" from people who'd obviously never heard the sound of a bullet going by their heads.
- 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 a war cemetery at Bastogne and told himself, "Here's twenty-seven thousand reasons to keep your mouth shut".
- 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."
- 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 an 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.
- Quintessential British Gentleman: Niven's trademark look was that of the most English man who ever lived.