Actor David Niven pictured on 22 pence British postage stamp

The Charming Phantom David Niven

by James W. Thomas

“Crisis or no, nothing should interfere with tea!” said David Niven, as Phileas Fogg, the perfect English gentleman, when facing another emergency. That line, from Around the World in 80 Days (1956) fit the actor known for his light comedy touch. He also showed a serious spirit in Separate Tables (1958), and won the Academy Award for Best Actor. And as for English, he was also Scottish, French, and Welsh.

After he appeared in almost 100 films, starred on television, and wrote several memoirs, he reminisced, “I’ve been lucky enough to win an Oscar, write a best-seller – my other dream would be to have a painting in the Louvre. The only way that’s going to happen is if I paint a dirty one on the wall of the gentlemen’s lavatory.” This leading man worked at not taking himself too seriously and it worked like a charm

James David Graham Niven was born on St. David’s Day, 1 March 1910, in London. The name “David” was a birthday present from his mother, Henrietta Degacher, one-quarter Welsh. His Scottish father, Lt. William Niven of the Berkshire Yeomanry, died in August 1915 at Gallipoli in World War I. His grandfather, William Degacher, also died in battle, at Isandlwana in January 1879 in the Anglo-Zulu War. David followed family tradition, graduating Sandhurst in 1930 and joining the Highland Light Infantry.

Acting suited him better. He tried movie bit parts in Britain, resigned his commission, and crossed the Atlantic, intent on a film career. His turn as Able-bodied Seaman in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) got him a contract with producer Samuel Goldwyn, leading to roles co-starring with Errol Flynn in Dawn Patrol (1938) and Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights (1939). Then came World War II.

After returning to Britain in 1940, ex-lieutenant Niven rejoined the army and transferred to the British Commandos, ending the war as a lieutenant colonel. During the Normandy campaign in 1944, he led “A” Squadron GHQ Liaison Regiment, known as “Phantom,” a signals reconnaissance unit reporting from the front lines.  His light touch encouraged his men. “Look, you chaps only have to do this once. But I’ll have to do it all over again in Hollywood with Errol Flynn.”

Niven himself said little about World War II except for his “first story and last.” He was asked by some American friends to find their son’s grave near Bastogne. “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.”

He resumed his career in 1946, but it sputtered in the early 50s with ‘artistic differences’ between him and producer Goldwyn. So Niven did television. Finally he starred in Separate Tables. He later telegraphed Oscar co-nominee Tony Curtis, “Congratulations, chum, but I want to make one thing crystal clear. Unless someone happens to be looking over my shoulder, I’ll be voting for myself.” When Niven won, he quipped, “They gave me very good lines and then cut to Deborah Kerr while I was saying them.”

Ian Fleming had David Niven in mind when creating James Bond, but when it came time to film Dr. No (1962), producer Albert Broccoli said “No, too old.” Niven played him anyway, as Sir James Bond, in Casino Royal (1967). Peter Sellers impersonated him. Woody Allen was nephew Jimmy Bond, who turns evil as Dr. Noah. Niven and Sellers had already teamed up in The Pink Panther (1963), which introduced Inspector Clouseau, while the A Squadron Phantom played Sir Charles Lytton, aka “the Phantom.”

His autobiography, The Moon’s a Balloon (1971), was a best seller. His follow up, Bring on the Empty Horses (1975), reminiscences from Hollywood, appropriated more than a few stories from other people. Apparently, Niven still was the “crown prince of charm” even when his exploits weren’t his own. Or, as his son David Jr. explained, “Sometimes, if you told him an amusing story, you would later hear him retelling it as if it had happened to him, only this time it was far more amusing.” What was not amusing was his diagnosis of ALS, “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” that, on 29 July 1983, ended all the charming stories.