David Niven was a greatly under-rated actor, especially by himself.
In his best selling autobiography The Moon’s a Balloon, he described himself as one who has had “the good fortune to parlay a minimal talent into a long career.”
In truth, of course, it wasn't minimal at all, merely instinctive, which is something altogether different and much rarer.
It is too easy to forget, because circumstances conspired to ensure that he made surprisingly few great films, just how good he would have been in so many others.
He is one of the few actors, for instance, that you can imagine taking over a Cary Grant role. Very few actors could step into shoes tailored expressly for Grant - but imagine Niven in just about any Grant movie and don't you think he'd have gotten away with it? I can't think of many - perhaps any - others who could.
In particular, I think it's a terrible shame that Hitchcock never got his hands on him. He would have been ideally suited to something like North by Northwest or To Catch a Thief. I suppose The Pink Panther was about as close as he got.
Throughout his life, Niven went to considerable lengths to maintain the illusion that he owed his fame and fortune to sheer luck, and certainly not to effort, and that his popular image as a good-natured and effortlessly sophisticated rogue was all there was to him.
Charlton Heston recalls a very funny story in his published diaries The Actor's Life, about the time that they appeared in the film 55 Days at Peking (1965):
I remember sitting at one of the press parties we gave about this time, earnestly explaining the politics of the Boxer Rebellion at great length to some weary journalist. In one of the pauses, I overheard David at the next table talking to his journalist: "Of course, if we get involved in the politics, we're lost."
But in reality his laid-back flippancy and happy-go-lucky demeanour veiled a man of great intelligence and integrity, who once told an interviewer: “life is really so bloody awful that I feel it’s my absolute duty to be chirpy and try and make everybody else happy too.”
James David Graham Niven was born into a military family in Belgravia in 1910, the youngest of four children. When he was five, his father was killed at Gallipoli, and his mother re-married to a man who, it has recently been suggested, had been her lover for some time, and was probably Niven’s father. Whatever the truth, it is certain that there was no love lost between Niven and her new husband, and it was largely on account of mutual antagonism that he spent most of his childhood in a succession of boarding schools.
In time he was enrolled at Stowe, where he excelled at cricket, rugby, boxing and fencing, and from there to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, from which he graduated in 1930 as a second Lieutenant.
Posted to Malta with the Highland Light Infantry, however, Niven quickly became bored, and his frustration with the inactivity of peacetime army life brought out his rebellious streak.
One evening in 1933, he had made dinner plans with an attractive female acquaintance, only to find that he was required to attend a compulsory lecture on machine guns, given by a distinguished Major General. At the end of the tedious monologue, the speaker asked if there were any questions. Niven raised his hand. “Could you tell me the time, sir?” he asked, “I have to catch a train.”
As a result, he found himself arrested on a charge of insubordination. With the connivance of his guard he escaped from a first-floor window, took a ship to New York and resigned his commission by on-board telegram.
After a few months of drifting, during which he tried his hand as a dealer in whisky and even a promoter for a horse rodeo, he found himself in Hollywood in 1934 where, having been told he would make a good actor, he signed on at Central Casting as ‘Anglo-Saxon Type No. 2008’.
A few small roles followed, but he made far more of a name for himself in Hollywood society than he did on screen, and it wasn’t long before producers were hearing of this dashing new British import. As a result, he was signed by producer Sam Goldwyn to a seven year contract.
In 1936 he co-starred with Errol Flynn in The Charge of the Light Brigade. Instantly recognising a kindred spirit in the notorious hellraiser, the two became close friends and eventually moved in together, in a house they nicknamed ‘Cirrhosis by the Sea’. Their escapades here - bawdy, boozy, foolhardy and sometimes not strictly legal - passed into Hollywood legend, and are lovingly recounted in Niven’s books The Moon’s a Balloon and Bring On the Empty Horses.
By 1939 he was on the verge of stardom, with major roles in Wuthering Heights, The Prisoner of Zenda, Raffles and several others consolidating his growing popularity with international audiences. In particular, he proved the ideal combination of love interest and comic support in two delightfully eccentric romantic comedies: Bachelor Mother with Ginger Rogers, and Eternally Yours with Loretta Young.
. This was unquestionably his breakthrough moment, but when war was declared he did not hesitate for a moment to drop his career, return to Britain and enlist.
He joined the commandos, took part in the invasion of Normandy, and ended the war with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
Despite his subsequent reputation as one of the film world’s greatest raconteurs, however, he rarely spoke of his war experiences.
He once explained his reticence by recalling an occasion when two of his American friends had asked him to find the grave of their son in a military cemetery in the Ardennes. “I found it where they told me I would,” he explained, “but it was among 27,000 others, and I told myself that here, Niven, were 27,000 reasons why you should keep your mouth shut after the war.”
Returning to Hollywood in 1946 (after giving one of his very best British performances in Michael Powell’s A Matter of Life and Death, above) he found that he had to rebuild his career from scratch. But his professional difficulties were dwarfed by an appalling personal tragedy.
After a courtship of just two weeks, he had married Primula Susan Rollo, or Primmie as he called her, in England in 1940. They were blissfully happy, and had two sons.
Just six weeks after their return to Hollywood, the couple attended a party at the home of actor Tyrone Power. During a game of hide and seek, Primmie walked through what she had thought was the door of a cupboard, only to tumble down a stone staircase leading to the cellar. She was rushed to hospital with a fractured skull and underwent an emergency brain operation, but died the following day. She was just twenty-eight years old.
Niven recalled the months that followed as the worst of his life.
He attempted suicide, surviving only because his gun failed to fire properly.
Largely so that his sons should not be deprived of a mother he remarried in 1948, to Swedish model Hjordis Tersmeden, but though they never divorced, the marriage was not happy.
As his spirits gradually returned, so did the offers of film work, and he entered his most productive and popular years as an actor. As a virtual synonym for English charm and sophistication, he appeared through the fifties and sixties in such films as Around the World In Eighty Days (1957), The Guns of Navarone (1962) and The Pink Panther (1963) in which, it is often forgotten, his was the lead role. He also received an Oscar for his fine performance in Separate Tables (1957), and found huge new acclaim as an author and chat show guest.
In 1979 he boarded a plane to New York and found himself sat next to an American journalist called Tom Brokaw.
Brokaw later told Niven’s son that for most of the flight Niven had been the most sparkling and delightful company; witty, warm, friendly to all, and hilariously funny.
Then shortly before landing he suddenly said, “The most terrible thing happened to me today,” and went on to confide that he had just been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease.
Brokaw asked what that meant, and Niven explained without the least self-pity that it was an incurable degenerative condition, that he would slowly lose the use of his limbs and his voice, and that he only had another year or so to live.
When he died, the outpouring of sadness and affection from colleagues, friends and fans was immense. Barry Norman wrote that, of all the film stars he profiled in his tv series The Hollywood Greats, Niven was unique in that not a single person he interviewed had anything but the warmest praise for him.
But perhaps the most telling epitaph came from the card attached to an enormous wreath sent to his funeral by the porters of Heathrow Airport. .
It read: “To the finest gentleman who ever walked through these halls. He made a porter feel like a king.”