Oscar Actors: Niven, David–Background, Career, Awards

David Niven Career Summary:

Occup. Inheritance: No

Social Class: Upper middle

Education: Royal Military College

Training: arrived in Hollywood in 1934; age 24

Film Debut:

Breakthrough Role: Wuthering Heights, 1939; age 29

Broadway Debut: 1950, opposite Swanson; age 40

Broadway Role: The Moon Is Blue, 1953; then movie version, 1954

TV Debut:

Oscar award: Separate Tables, 1958; age 48.

Other awards: Golden Globe

Career Span:

Career Output: Over 100 films.

Last Film:




David Niven (born March 1, 1910) was a successful English actor, memoirist and novelist, is best known for his roles as Squadron Leader Peter Carter in A Matter of Life and Death, Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days, and Sir Charles Lytton (“the Phantom”) in The Pink Panther.

He won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Separate Tables (1958).

Born in London, Niven attended Heatherdown Preparatory School and Stowe School before gaining a place at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. After Sandhurst, he joined the British Army and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Highland Light Infantry. Having developed an interest in acting, he left the army, travelled to Hollywood and had several minor roles in film.

He first appeared as an extra in the British film There Goes the Bride (1932). From there, he hired an agent and had several small parts in films from 1933 to 1935, including non-speaking role in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Mutiny on the Bounty. He was spotted by Samuel Goldwyn.

Upon the outbreak of the Second World War, Niven returned to Britain and rejoined the army, recommissioned as a lieutenant. In 1942 he co-starred in the morale-building film about the development of the Supermarine Spitfire fighter, The First of the Few (American title Spitfire), enthusiastically endorsed by Winston Churchill.

Niven resumed his acting career after demobilization.

He was voted the second-most popular British actor in the 1945 poll of British film stars. He appeared in A Matter of Life and Death (1946), The Bishop’s Wife (1947) with Cary Grant, and Enchantment (1948), all of which received critical acclaim. Niven later appeared in The Elusive Pimpernel (1950), The Toast of New Orleans (1950), Happy Go Lovely (1951), Happy Ever After (1954) and Carrington V.C. (1955) before scoring a big success as Phileas Fogg in Michael Todd’s production of Around the World in 80 Days (1956).

Niven appeared in nearly 100 films, and many TV shows. He also began writing books, with considerable commercial success.

In 1982 he appeared in Blake Edwards’ final “Pink Panther” films Trail of the Pink Panther and Curse of the Pink Panther, reprising his role as Sir Charles Lytton.

James David Graham Niven was born March 1, 1910, in Belgrave Mansions, London, to William Edward Graham Niven and his wife, Henrietta Julia (née Degacher) Niven. He was named David after his birth on St David’s Day, March 1; Niven often claimed that he was born in Kirriemuir, in Scottish county of Angus in 1909.

Niven’s mother, Henrietta, was of French and Welsh ancestry, born in Wales, the daughter of army officer William Degacher. Niven’s maternal grandfather, William Degacher, was killed in the Battle of Isandlwana (1879), during the Zulu War.

Niven’s father, William Niven, was of Scottish descent, who served in the Berkshire Yeomanry in the First World War and was killed during the Gallipoli campaign on August 21, 1915.

Niven’s mother, Henrietta Niven, remarried Sir Thomas Comyn-Platt in London in 1917.

English private schools of Niven’s boyhood were strict in discipline. Niven suffered corporal punishment owing to his inclination for pranks, which finally led to his expulsion from Heatherdown Preparatory School at the age of 10½. This ended his chances for Eton College, a significant blow to his family.

After failing to pass the naval entrance exam, Niven attended Stowe School, a newly created public school led by headmaster J. F. Roxburgh. Thoughtful and kind, he addressed the boys by their first names, allowed them bicycles, and encouraged and nurtured their personal interests.  He attended the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, graduating in 1930 with a commission as a second lieutenant in the British Army.

He did well at Sandhurst, which gave him the “officer and gentleman” bearing that was his trademark. He requested assignment to the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders or the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment). He was assigned to the HLI and served two years in Malta and then a few months in Dover. In Malta, he became friends with Roy Urquhart, future commander of the British 1st Airborne Division.

Though promoted to lieutenant in 1933, he saw no opportunity for real career. His decision to resign came after a lengthy lecture on machine guns, during which he misbehaved. Arrested, he was allowed to escape from a window. He then headed for America, resigning his commission by telegram in September 1933.

Niven then moved to New York, where he began an unsuccessful career in whisky sales, after which he had a stint in horse rodeo promotion in Atlantic City. After detours to Bermuda and Cuba, he arrived in Hollywood in 1934.

The Moon Is Blue (1953): Golden Globe

Niven appearing on Broadway opposite Gloria Swanson in Nina (1951–52), which ran for 45 performances. But it was seen by Otto Preminger who cast Niven in the film version of the play The Moon Is Blue (1953), which Preminger had directed in New York.

The Moon Is Blue, a sex comedy, became notorious when released without  Production Code Seal of Approval; it was a big hit and Niven won a Golden Globe Award.

Niven also became involved in American TV as a partner in Four Star Television, a company he established with Dick Powell and Charles Boyer. It produced several shows, in several of which Niven appeared.

Niven’s next films were made in England: The Love Lottery (1954), a comedy; Carrington V.C. (1954), a drama which earned Niven a BAFTA nomination for Best Actor; Happy Ever After (1954), a comedy with Yvonne de Carlo which was hugely popular in Britain.

In Hollywood he had thankless role as the villain in an MGM swashbuckler The King’s Thief (1955). He had a better part in The Birds and the Bees (1956), playing a conman, and in the British The Silken Affair (1956).

Niven’s professional fortunes were restored when cast as Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days (1956), which won the Best Picture Oscar and was a huge hit at the box office.