While many people remember David Niven as the epitome of "dry wit," his real life was anything but dry. He was the inspiration for James Bond, he palled around with the controversial Errol Flynn, and he married a drop-dead gorgeous Swedish supermodel. What was it about this guy? The pencil-thin mustache? The smooth as silk accent? Or maybe that, no matter what got thrown his way, he always kept his cool.
David Niven claims that he was born in March 1909, in Kirriemuir, in the county of Angus in Scotland. But his birth certificate says something completely different. The date was 1910 and the location was Belgrave Mansions, Grosvenor Gardens in London. Both sound pretty fancy to me, but Niven's origin story involved another—even greater—mystery.
Niven’s father gave his life for his country fighting in the army, and his mother Henrietta remarried shortly after that. But there was something odd about Niven's new stepfather—Sir Thomas Comyn-Platt. Many people said Comyn-Platt bore an uncanny resemblance to young David, making some believe that he was probably Niven's real father.
But who Niven truly took after is anyone's guess because he grew into quite the troublemaker.
Young Niven liked pulling pranks so much that it got him beaten by headmasters and then kicked out of prep school at the age of 10. To his parents' dismay, this bad behavior sparked a domino effect, and it ended up barring him from the distinguished halls of Eton. To make matters worse, he also failed his naval entrance exam. Nevertheless, his penchant for shenanigans had only just begun.
During his holiday in 1928, Niven met the beguiling Margaret Whigham, the future Duchess of Argyll. But what began as a harmless romance soon turned into Niven's worst nightmare. He accidentally got Whigam pregnant, inciting the wrath of her father. In describing this debacle, the family cook said, "All [chaos] broke loose".
Of course, Niven's 15-year-old girlfriend wasn't allowed to keep the baby, and her family whisked her off to have a secret abortion. Even though this fling wasn't meant to last, Whigham never forgot Niven and thought highly of him for the rest of her life. Having averted the threat of becoming a young father, Niven set out to make even more mistakes.
Niven spent about five years in the British Army, but in the end, the peacetime service didn’t interest him. His career came to a stop when he tried to rush out of a lecture on automatic weaponry because he had a hot date. When the speaker asked if there were any questions, Niven had the cheekiest response: "Could you tell me the time, sir? I have to catch a train". Unfortunately, this witty comeback got him into some serious trouble.
Niven's little joke actually had him incarcerated. Of course, it wasn't long before he was soon drinking the time away with the man guarding him, and eventually, this guard even helped him escape. Once out of prison, Niven just kept right on running—all the way to America. Niven sent his letter of resignation to the army and started a new life. But what was the plan? Yikes! There wasn’t one.
Niven ended up in New York City in 1933 as prohibition was coming to its sober end. Niven tried his hand at selling spirits and failed. You’d think after 13 years of booze-free living, the spirits would’ve sold themselves, but Niven just wasn't cut out to be a salesman. Finally, after bouncing around for a while, he found himself in the golden land of opportunity—Hollywood. There was, however, just one problem.
Niven knew next to nothing about films or acting or even how a studio operated, but luckily, he had friends in high places. In order to get an insider's perspective, he enlisted the help of the famous actress, Loretta Young. Young was already an established performer and wanted to help Niven out. And so, her family snuck him into Fox Studios in the most devious way: they hid him beneath their limousine's rug. But Niven was no stranger to sneaky tactics.
When Niven tried to get work as an actor in Hollywood he made a shocking realization: he was living in the US without papers. Niven hightailed it to Mexico, waited for his birth certificate from Britain, and then rushed back to the US proudly holding his Resident Alien Visa. With that disaster averted, he was finally ready to get his acting career started.
To kickstart his career, Niven headed over to Central Casting with high hopes. To his delight, the folks at Central Casting liked what they saw and hired him on the spot. Only, it wasn't exactly the kind of casting Niven had in mind. Turns out, they didn't envision him as a lead actor, but rather as background talent. To add insult to injury, his category read, "Anglo-Saxon Type No. 2,008". From there, things only went from bad to worse.
Niven failed his screen tests left, right, and center. But it was his reading with Mae West that truly bombed. West was reportedly silent the entire time—and not because she was in awe...Niven miserably failed the test. 40 years later, West had a different tale to tell. She said that Niven had "charm where other men only have cologne". Still, at the time, Niven's charm didn't seem to get him anywhere.
Despite his failed screen tests, Samuel Goldwyn offered him a contract. But a contract wasn’t a sure-fire way to get parts in movies. In fact, Goldwyn refused to give him a part until he proved himself on his own. Niven turned to the Pasadena Playhouse as a way to get some much needed experience. He landed a small part but sadly, it turned into a total disaster.
On any given night, the Pasadena Playhouse had more stars in the audience than on the stage. It was a way for established Hollywood stars to check out new actors. Even though Niven had only one line, he was beyond nervous. While backstage waiting for his entrance, he did the last thing an actor should do before going on stage: he calmed his nerves by taking a drink—or maybe three.
Niven was close to staggering by the time he got on stage and his brief performance was a catastrophe that only got him fired. Still, Niven didn’t give up.
Niven was friends with actor Errol Flynn who once asked Niven if he wanted to see the "best looking girls in LA". This sounded like a delightful idea to Niven, and so he went along for the ride. He had no clue what he was in for. Allegedly, Flynn took him down Sunset Boulevard, eventually parking close to Hollywood High. This was not what Niven had had in mind.
Turns out, Flynn had a thing for underaged girls and parked across the way to let Niven have a look at the young teenagers leaving class. When the authorities spotted them lurking, they questioned the two actors. To Niven's dismay, Flynn had a gross quip at the ready: "We are just admiring the scenery". Soon, however, Niven would have far more dire things to worry about than dealing with his inappropriate friends.
As Germany became more of a threat against Britain, Niven’s patriotism drove him home. The British Embassy told actors from the UK to stay put in the US. But the embassy couldn’t deter Niven, and he managed to finagle himself back into Britain. After reenlisting, he became friends with Prime Minister Churchill who commended him for returning to fight for his country. But for Niven, he soon found something to rival his love of country.
While on leave from battle, Niven found time for romance—but not the kind usually associated with servicemen on leave. No, Niven found true love. He met Primula Susan Rollo—known as Primmie—in 1940, and they had a very quick courtship followed by a marriage and the birth of two sons. But as we’ll soon see, it was the dangers at home, not in battle, that brought him face-to-face with utter tragedy.
In 1946, only six weeks after Niven brought his bride to Hollywood—disaster struck. While attending a party at the home of Tyrone Power, Primmie joined a game of hide-and-seek. Primmie, whilst looking for a hiding spot, opened a door that she thought led to a closet. Sadly, it was actually the top of a stone staircase. One wrong step and Primmie toppled down the flight of stairs: she didn’t survive the fall.
After losing his wife, Niven grappled with his grief by pouring himself into his career. He made film after film in the years following his wife’s fatal accident. But despite the sheer of quantity of work he produced, there was certainly an issue with the quality of work: the films were mostly box office meh. With his career floundering, Niven certainly found someone to ease the pain.
Back in the 1940s, the term "Swedish Supermodel" hadn’t really caught on in America. Well, someone had to start it and it just so happened that Niven’s next wife was the one to do it. Hjördis Paulina Genberg was one of the first supermodels to come out of Sweden and she bowled Niven over with her looks. In fact, he was uncommonly speechless—at least for a second or two.
When Niven first laid eyes on Hjördis Paulina Genberg, her beauty rendered him speechless. Well, once he regained his faculties he had a lot to say. Apparently, he "goggled" at her beauty. Her stunning looks put a lump in his throat and gave him "champagne in his knees". Although this sounds like an illness treated with antibiotics—for Niven, it was love. In 1948, the two of them tied the knot.
Genberg was nine years younger than Niven, and her introduction to his sons was a rather awkward affair. She told them repeatedly that she wasn’t there to replace their mother. The boys later admitted that Genberg was a lot of fun and more like an older sister than a mother anyway. When they found out that Genberg couldn't conceive, she and Niven adopted two little girls.
During one of his Christmas parties, Niven arranged to have Tyrone Power play Santa for the kids. Even though Power played many brave characters during his career, he had an embarrassing secret: he was petrified to perform in front of children. When Power showed up totally inebriated, Niven accidentally drenched him by turning on the lawn sprinklers. And yet, Power still managed to terrify all the children.
But even though Niven had a wide circle of (sometimes questionable) friends, he still struggled to find his foothold in Hollywood.
Niven was still not having much luck in Hollywood, and so he focussed his energies on Plan B—Broadway. And this time, his plan worked. Superstar director Otto Preminger saw Niven on stage with Gloria Swanson and wanted to cast Niven in his next film. But Preminger was a controversial director and Niven soon found himself embroiled in a scandal.
The film Niven made with Preminger was The Moon Is Blue and the controversy was about the script. The censors took one look at it and gave it a big "No". They didn’t like the script’s flippant attitude toward serious subject matter like virginity, dating, and seduction. Preminger tried to rewrite it to please them but nothing seemed to work. And so, Niven's boss did something outrageous.
Preminger’s film, The Moon Is Blue, starring David Niven, was the first American film released without the PCA’s seal of approval. Only theaters in major cities would show it and only to adult audiences—some theaters even required men and women to view it separately. Some states, like Ohio and Kansas, went even further by banning it completely. Niven found himself at the center of a nationwide controversy. The next stop was a courtroom.
Niven’s film with Preminger caused theatrical chaos across the country and it ended in a Maryland courtroom. The director wanted to sue the state for banning his film. The judge took one look at the movie and called it, "a light comedy telling a tale of wide-eyed, brash, puppy-like innocence". The film promptly gained approval and Niven reaped the benefits.
In spite of mostly so-so reviews, The Moon Is Blue was a box office success. You know what they say: you can’t buy the publicity a lawsuit can get you. And what about the film’s star, David Niven? He snagged a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor that he might not have received if it weren’t for all this controversy. But he was just getting started.
After a few non-memorable roles, Niven scored the lead part in Around the World in 80 Days. The film didn’t get much attention for its acting, but it certainly won the Best Picture Oscar. With this Academy Award hitting so close to home, Niven made a resolution: he wanted an Oscar for himself. Well, he certainly did it—but in a way that had never been seen before.
In 1958, David Niven won his only Oscar—in fact, it was his only nomination. Besides being his sole win, it had another point of significance. Niven was the host that year, so he set a record that no actor has ever matched. It was the only time the ceremony's host also won an Academy Award. But that wasn't the only "first" of Niven's memorable night.
Niven was the first host to ever win an Academy Award while hosting. But there was something else that made his win unusual. Separate Tables, the film he won for, had a large ensemble cast. So, even though Niven was a major character, he only appeared on screen for 23 minutes—making his appearance the briefest to ever garner a Best Actor award. Still, this feat wasn’t enough to make him a "sir".
There was a small crowd of famous British personalities that had moved to Switzerland—mostly to avoid paying taxes. Niven moved there in 1960 and joined up with Deborah Kerr, Peter Ustinov, and Noel Coward. Some suggest that his decision to avoid paying taxes was the reason he never got a "Sir" in front of his name, but this was later disproved. As Niven soon learned, living in Switzerland wasn’t going to solve all of his problems.
Niven’s initial bliss with his wife Genberg slowly faded with the passing of the years. Being a former model, Genberg enjoyed being the spotlit star. Now, however, with a famous husband on her harm, he was the one stealing all the attention. According to Niven’s sons, Genberg started drinking and was prone to depression. Niven was terribly unhappy but chose to stay for the sake of his daughters. But while his home life tanked, his career began to soar.
Niven, fresh from his Oscar win, signed on to a series of action films that promised to be wildly popular. Comedy seemed to be his sweet spot—the place where his heart truly lay—and so, his next huge hit was 1963’s The Pink Panther. Only, as soon as filming started, the director had a stunning change of heart...And it didn't bode well for Niven.
Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau was a supporting character in the first Pink Panther film. But once the director saw Sellers’ improvisational skills, he beefed up the bumbling detective role, causing Niven’s role as the debonair thief to become second fiddle. Even though he had the top-billing, Niven technically lost the lead role. From then on, the series featured Sellers’ Clouseau as the main character. However, Niven quickly made it clear that he couldn't stand being outshone.
By the next year's Oscars, having The Pink Panther stolen from him was certainly getting under Niven’s skin. Niven was set to present an award at the ceremony and the producers wanted to lead him on to the stage with the familiar Pink Panther theme music. Niven declined with the most heartbreaking response: "That was not really my film". Even so, there were bigger things in store for Niven.
If you think of tough-guy Daniel Craig when you think of James Bond, you should think again. When Bond author Ian Fleming sat down to write the first 007 novel, he had one person in mind as his inspiration: tall, witty, and charming David Niven. However, as far as Bond goes, things didn’t really work out for Niven.
Ian Fleming really wanted Niven to play 007 in the first Bond Film, but he never saw this dream come true. Instead, Eon Productions gave the role to Sean Connery who held the reins for many years. But Niven did get to play Bond once. The first Bond book Fleming wrote was Casino Royale and Eon Productions didn’t have the rights to it. A man named Charles K. Feldman did and he had his own ideas.
When Feldman decided to make a Bond film with David Niven, Eon Productions’ Bond series was already very popular—and most fans saw Sean Connery as 007. So Feldman looked at what they were trying to do and got nervous. How could Niven compete with the Connery driven series? Would he look foolish? Would the film be a flop? This second guessing led to Feldman doing something extremely silly.
Author Ian Fleming’s dream was to see Bond played by Niven and he got his way—sort of. Producer Feldman got nervous and decided to make Casino Royale into something different from the Eon Bonds by turning it into a satire. Niven certainly had the comedic chops and Feldman added newcomer funny-man Woody Allen and scene-stealer Peter Sellers. But what about the novel? Was it even funny?
If you’ve seen the Casino Royale version with Daniel Craig, you know that the story is certainly not comedic. So Niven’s Casino Royale had to be wildly adapted and listed as "loosely based" on the novel. What a disappointment for Fleming. He gets the Bond he wants, but in a story that he probably didn’t even recognize as his own. The film, however, did pretty well. It grossed 41.7 million dollars worldwide.
In 1974, Niven was back as a co-host of the Oscars and making yet another first. He was on stage when a streaker ran across the stage in his birthday suit. This was a fad that had occurred at sports events, but the Oscars? The producers and audience members couldn’t believe their eyes. People weren't sure whether the ceremony would continue. Luckily, clever Niven was on hand.
Niven, always the professional, didn’t miss a beat. He watched the unclothed man, who was obviously enjoying the millions of eyes on his bare splendor, and then dryly quipped: "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?" Bam! But wait, doesn’t that sound just a little too rehearsed?
Many believe that the streaker at the Academy Awards was an orchestrated publicity stunt meant to attract attention to the show. In fact, during the dress rehearsal, Niven, presumably after learning about the planned stunt, asked to borrow a pen so he could write down the famous line. Well, as we already know, Niven had always been a prankster.
Even though The Pink Panther had been a bit of a miss for Niven, he had cameos in the final two Pink Panther movies. At this time, Niven was getting on in years and not in great health. In fact, after they’d shot Curse of the Pink Panther they realized that Niven’s voice was almost inaudible. Instead of calling the elderly actor to dub his own voice, they made an unbelievable decision.
At the time, Rich Little was a famous and wildly talented impersonator who was known for, among other impressions, his take on President Richard Nixon—kind of like Alec Baldwin's Donald Trump. So the producers of Curse of the Pink Panther decided to hire him to impersonate Niven’s voice in the film. However, there was one important thing that they entirely forgot to do.
Niven assumed he’d adequately completed his work on Curse of the Pink Panther and was waiting to see it on the big screen. But, reading the newspaper one day, he got an unexpected surprise. He found out about Little dubbing his lines just like everyone else found out—from the media. The studio had forgotten to tell Niven that Little had filled in for his subpar vocal performance.
In his memoir, Bring on the Empty Horses, Niven writes about an unnamed Hollywood starlet who, when her looks started to fade, went a little crazy. She became a pill-popping maniac that Niven had to take care of. On one occasion, he remembers how this starlet groveled to him, practically begging him to tell her she was still beautiful. Of course, everyone who read the book was dying to know who she was.
In Bring on the Empty Horses, Niven refers to the troubled starlet as "Missie" but never mentions her real name. Of course there has been a ton of speculation. Some say the description sounds a lot like Lana Turner. Others think that Vivien Leigh—because of her battle with bipolar disorder—might be Missie. Whoever Missie was, Niven, always the gentleman, refused to reveal the truth.
In 1981, Niven’s appearance on Merv Griffin's show had viewers greatly concerned. Onscreen, he slurred his words as if he’d been drinking or had had a stroke. Niven’s behavior confused his friends, but later that year his doctor solved the mystery: Niven had Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He was in hospital for 10 days and then returned to his chalet in Switzerland. His health got worse, but Niven was adamant—he didn't want to go back to the hospital.
Michael Munn, British author and film historian, says he met up with Niven when he was close to the end and Niven allegedly told Munn more than a few outlandish stories. Among them are stories of an affair with Princess Margaret and his wife getting an STI from Jack Kennedy. But that wasn't all. Supposedly, Niven had tried to take his own life after his first wife’s fatal accident. And yet, so many of these claims seemed out of character for Niven. How could this be?
Niven’s sons went ballistic when Munn’s stories became public. They went on to claim that Niven didn’t even know Michael Munn and refused to believe the author when he said he'd met up with Niven. They may be right as Munn’s biographies of David Niven, Steve McQueen, Frank Sinatra, and John Wayne have all been largely discredited.
In 1983, Niven passed on, but his legacy as a gentleman will forever live in print. James Bond author Ian Fleming obviously had a lot of respect for Niven and he wanted to let the world know. Kissy Suzuki, a fictional character in You Only Live Twice, mentions that Niven was "the only man she liked in Hollywood". The character went on to say that he was the only man who "treated her honorably".
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