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David Niven

At his memorial service was an enormous wreath from the Heathrow Airport porters with the inscription: 'To the finest gentleman who ever walked through these halls. He made a porter feel like a king.'

David Niven was born in London in 1910 and, in 1915, his father was killed at Gallipoli. An unruly pupil, Niven was expelled from prep school but flourished at the newly-founded Stowe School and entered Sandhurst in 1928. On duty as Commandant’s Stick Orderly, his cross belt was inspected by the College Sergeant Major and found to have cigarettes, matches and condoms in the pouch. However, despite his inherent dislike of authority, he commissioned in 1930 with the military bearing that was to be the hallmark of his later career. His third choice of arm was ‘anything but the Highland Light Infantry’ which was, of course, where he was sent.

Serving firstly in Malta and latterly Dover, he grew bored of peacetime soldiering. Matters came to a head when during questions after a lengthy lecture from a General he asked for the time – ‘because I have a train to catch.’ Placed under close arrest he was allowed to escape by his escorting officer and boarded a ship for the USA, sending his resignation to his Commanding Officer by telegram.

Working as a whisky salesman and rodeo rider and after stints in Bermuda, Cuba and Mexico he arrived in Hollywood and was accepted by Central Casting as: ‘Anglo-Saxon Type no 2008’. After bit parts including in Mutiny on the Bounty he was signed by Samuel Goldwyn and appeared in bigger and better roles until 1938. That year he was cast as the lead in Dawn Patrol and in Raffles the following year. By now a major star, Niven was part of a group of influential British actors known as The Hollywood Raj and much in demand. However, upon the outbreak of WW2, despite advice from the British Embassy to the contrary, he travelled to the UK to enlist, one of the few British Hollywood stars to do so. In early 1940 Winston Churchill said to him: ‘Young man. You did a fine thing giving up your film career to fight for your country. Mark you – had you not done so, it would have been despicable!’

Commissioned into the Rifle Brigade, Niven soon transferred to the Commandos but was given leave to star in two propaganda films, First of The Few (1942) and The Way Ahead (1944). He landed in Normandy a week after D Day serving in the Phantom Signals Unit, a Commando forward Reconnaissance unit. Calming his soldiers’ nerves before an operation he said: ‘Look – you chaps only have to do this once – but I’ll have to do it all over again in Hollywood with Errol Flynn!’ Awarded the US Legion of Merit, Niven was demobbed as a Lieutenant Colonel.

Returning to Hollywood he was never out of work but the major roles eluded him as they had fellow pre-war British star and wartime officer Richard Greene. He also worked in Broadway and was spotted by Otto Preminger and cast in The Moon is Blue for which he won a Golden Globe. This re-booted his career and Niven starred in the huge hit, Around The World in Eighty Days and won an Oscar for Separate Tables (1958). After action hits such as The Guns of Navarone and comedy hits such as The Pink Panther Niven was cast as James Bond in the comedy spy caper Casino Royale, a spoof rival to the already popular Bond franchise starring Sean Connery. The film had a stellar cast including cameos from Peter O’Toole and Stirling Moss and a debut for Dave Prowse – better known as Darth Vader. Indeed, Niven had been Ian Fleming’s first choice to play Bond in Dr No.

Niven continued to star throughout the sixties and seventies and his last film was a cameo role in Curse of The Pink Panther (1983). By now suffering from Motor Neurone Disease, his voice was dubbed for the film. He also published two novels and two highly successful autobiographies the first of which, The Moon’s A Balloon, sold over five million copies. David Niven died on 29 July 1983. At his memorial service an enormous wreath was delivered from the Heathrow Airport porters with the inscription: ‘To the finest gentleman who ever walked through these halls. He made a porter feel like a king.’

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