The Wry Grace and Witty Elegance of David Niven

There are certain actors we always picture in their signature roles when we think of them. Sean Conneryfor instance, is always James Bond. Charlie Chaplin is the Little Tramp. Meryl Streep is Sophie Zawistowski in Sophie’s Choice (1982).

When it comes to David Niventhe signature role of his life was simply being David Niven.

Pencil-thin mustache, easy smile, impeccable wardrobe, erect bearing, and a vaguely aristocratic manner, he’s the gentleman at the party who always seems to have people laughing. The one who shows up at a family picnic wearing a sharp blazer and cufflinks and offers up amusing stories about his boat and the people on it. The one who looks at you intently when you talk to him and says, “Oh, my goodness. I can’t believe you got through that. Good for you. ” And then puts his hand lightly on your shoulder and vows that you must have lunch together the next time he’s in town. You know, a David Niven.

However, the reality of David Niven’s life was vastly different from that he projected in an easy and graceful manner. His childhood, in particular, was appallingly difficult.

David Niven was born on March 1st, 1910, in London, England. He was the youngest of four children and was left fatherless at just five years old when his father was killed at Gallipoli in World War I. (By the way, Gallipoli (1981) is a wrenching Australian film made about this battle, which I highly recommend.)

Niven’s mother almost immediately remarried a man with whom she had been having an affair, a man who Niven always referred to as a “creep.” In fact, there was a general belief in the family that Niven’s future stepfather actually fathered him. Niven was sent off to boarding school a year later but was then kicked out of school for mailing his best friend an ornately wrapped box of dog excrement, and expelled from another boarding school due to his involvement in a gang of shoplifters.

When he was 14 years old, Niven’s stepfather claimed there wasn’t room for him to sleep in the family home and found him a room to stay in several miles away in London. Each night after family dinner, he would take the bus across town to his room. Niven later attended Sandhurst — the British equivalent to West Point — and joined the British Army.

While in the Army, Niven appeared in several small theatrical productions in his regiment. In 1933, after growing bored with the Army, he resigned his commission as a Second Lieutenant and went to America. He landed first in New York but decided to make the trek to Los Angeles to attempt a career as an actor.

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