A retrospective look at television appearances made over the years by Oscar-winning actor David Niven, capturing the milestones and highlights of his life and career.
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America's favourite Englishman in the 1940s and '50s,
David Niven -
he was charming, elegant, perfect gent.
He was part of Hollywood's elite for more than four decades.
His easy style and lightness of touch
earned him huge acclaim in films like Dawn Patrol,
A Matter Of Life And Death, The Pink Panther,
and helped to win him an Oscar
for the 1958 film, Separate Tables.
He was friends with everyone who was anyone
and had a seemingly endless stock of anecdotes
that made him a perfect interviewee,
as Cliff Michelmore discovered in this example from 1968.
-But when did you first get the idea
that you wanted to become a movie actor, film star?
The ridiculous thing is, we're now in Shepherd's Bush, aren't we?
And when I was at Sandhurst,
there was a great comedian called Tom Walls
who won the Derby with...
-April The Fifth.
-April The Fifth, that's right.
And his son was at Sandhurst with me.
And I was sent away to Malta with my regiment,
was not a very good soldier
and thought that pastures new was the move.
I saw young Tom Walls, I said,
"I think I'd better try and become an actor."
So he sent me here to meet his father, who HATED me.
Absolutely loathed me, and I went back to the Army again.
But I got the first idea here.
You weren't a very good soldier, you say?
I was very, very bad indeed.
They had a system in the regular Army
where you had to have a confidential report
which the colonel wrote and then you were formed up and marched in
and it was read to you, once a year,
before he sent it to the War Office.
And if you agreed, you signed it.
Of course, you had to agree, so you would sign anyway.
I was formed up and it said,
"This officer, though in a few respects, excellent,
"after two years in Malta knows less about the Army
"than most of his friends in the Navy."
So I signed it.
I said, "Very generous, sir. Thank you very much."
Not a good beginning.
Then you got out? You left the Army.
I left the Army. Erm... yes.
I didn't do anything awful.
I made a silly move.
I was in love with a lady who lived in London
and I'd just bought a terrible old 15th-hand Bentley
that belonged to an Australian for very little,
but I'd always wanted a Bentley.
It was a ghastly sort of cad's car.
It had an altimeter in it, and had... MICHELMORE CHUCKLES
gears on the outside and it had a pressure thing.
I never quite knew what that was for. It pumped.
And I loved this car.
It had a strap over the bonnet...
and I loved this lady.
It was a very dull general who was lecturing to us,
and I wanted to go to see the lady in London.
We were down in Tidworth, I was doing a machine-gun course or something.
So at the end of this long, dull lecture,
this idiot general said,
"Any officers want to ask any questions?"
He said, "What is your question?"
I said, "Could you tell me the time? I have to catch a train."
And there was rather an ugly moment.
He said, "Consider yourself under close arrest."
And I was marched off.
What pulled you to Hollywood, though?
Well, I went from Canada,
I worked in Canada for a bit and worked on a bridge
and I went to New York and I sold booze,
just after Prohibition, I sold whisky.
And I ran this ill-fated indoor pony-racing thing in Atlantic City.
Then I went to Cuba with the idiot idea I was going to be a mercenary.
I mean, this is the sort of idiot idea people still have.
And incredible as it may seem,
at the time that Batista was the revolutionary
who, of course, was the one who Castro overthrew.
Batista was then a great revolutionary and I thought,
you know, machine gun expert, that I could get a job.
I made some rather extravagant claims
in Sloppy Joe's bar in Havana
and said I was open for business, and could be hired,
and the next day, a rather nice man from the British Embassy phoned me
and gave me 24 hours to get out of the country.
Well, I hadn't done anything wrong. Thank God he came!
And I was put on a Japanese ship, which was the first one that sailed,
and I went to California, where, I must say,
I thought I would try and get the pony racing going again,
because it was such a good idea.
So you didn't really go there to enter films, really?
No. Pure financial necessity drove me
to the terrible plight I'm now in.
I started off as an extra,
Anglo-Saxon Type Number 2,008, I was.
What was Hollywood like then?
Seeing it now, it's very frayed around the edges
and really rather tatty and really rather sad, I found it to be.
I agree with you. It is now. I haven't been there for...
well, I went there last year to make a picture,
but I haven't lived there for eight years.
But it was marvellous then. It was really great.
And when I said, "BECAUSE there was no television," don't be insulted.
The reason it was great was the only way into it,
into the business, was by being extra,
because there was no television, there was no showcase, you see?
And all of us, all of the extras, were would-be stars.
-I'm rather hot, can I take my tie off?
All of us were would-be stars and most of us started that way.
So there was a marvellous electric feeling on the set.
Nowadays, the extras, with all due respect to them,
cos it's an awfully tough job,
most of them are doing other jobs.
You know, a lot of them are housewives
and they go and pick up a little pocket money.
They haven't got that great drive.
We used to stand there and the assistant director would say,
"Now, I have one line for somebody."
He looked round and he'd say, "Right, you, you, you, and you,"
and the four of us would form up
and we'd read the line right there on the set,
and whoever read it the best got the job.
And you built from there.
You shared a house, didn't you, in those days with Errol Flynn?
Yes, I did, just after that. We had a house on the beach
called Cirrhosis By The Sea, for rather obvious reasons.
THEY LAUGH Oh, he was funny!
He really was splendid.
Was he as tough as everyone said he was?
He was really, a very, very tough man indeed.
For instance, we did two pics together.
The first one was The Charge Of The Light Brigade
and then we did The Dawn Patrol,
which is always on television on the late, late, late show in America.
Now, in The Dawn Patrol, by the way, for one moment,
I'm the first man to drop an atomic bomb,
because, I remember this well, I was in a Sopwith Camel aeroplane,
and Errol was another one
and we were flying over Krupp's armament works
in Essen or somewhere
and I remember, in the film, flying the plane and bending down
and picking up from between my legs a bomb with a handle on it.
And dropping this bomb on Krupp's
and blowing the entire place to smithereens. It's the first one.
But anyway, back to Errol. Errol was...
You said, was he tough?
When we did The Charge Of The Light Brigade,
they had 600 really tough fellows for the charge.
They were all cowboy...
stuntmen. And I knew a lot of them.
I did 27 Westerns before I ever spoke.
I knew most of them. They were really a rough group. Marvellous group.
And Errol went through a period, which we all go through, of having a rather swollen head.
He just made a big success in the first picture
and we were lined up, the 600 fellows,
and I was one of the junior officers
and two officers and Flynn was in front
and Flynn was taking it all a bit seriously,
and he'd let the reins go on his horse
and he was sitting back, you know,
getting the hat straight,
getting everything touched up before the charge.
We had rubber lances, in case anybody poked anybody's eye out,
with these wobbly tips.
So one of these enormous fellows behind
leant forward with his lance
and - BRRRR! - up Errol Flynn's horse's behind,
which went like this and Flynn went about 19 feet in the air.
If it had been me, I would have got up and said, "Oh, please, don't!"
and would have got on my horse... but not Flynn.
He said, "Which of you sons of bitches did that?"
This huge orang-utan said, "I did. You want to make something of it?"
So Flynn said, "I certainly do."
He pulled him off the horse and they fought for oh, minutes,
and he murdered him, absolutely massacred him,
and they adored Flynn after that. Thought he was great.
You were trained in the Army
but what sort of stage training,
what kind of film training did you get?
Did anyone then consciously take you and train you in the business
of making films and the business of being, well, an actor?
You really learned as you went along. It's the only way.
I'm always suspicious of these schools of acting.
If you're lucky enough to get little jobs to start with.
I learn every day now.
I remember Larry Olivier said to me once...
I did a play, and I'm a very, very bad stage actor...
I'm pretty bad movie actor,
but I'm an absolutely ghastly stage actor.
And he was my friend and almost relation.
He and Noel Coward are responsible.
They said, "You've got to go on stage and learn. Do it."
I'd been starring in movies.
So I did it. And I was awful. But Larry said,
"You will learn more by disaster than you will from success."
He's always said that.
I'm a very, very bad actor on the stage. I'm no good at it.
Because I can't concentrate.
I love the opening night,
because the possibility of disaster's quite great,
and that's sort of fascinating.
And I love the first week or so, but then I get bored.
That's why I'm so bad, I'm not trained.
And I begin to get fascinated by the audience.
My attention wanders, and if I see something good going on
or something good, let's face it, down there,
I have to be checking. No good.
But I've done two plays.
One was a great disaster and one was a great success,
and I really don't know which I hated the most.
Amongst Niven's biggest hits was the much-loved 1956 film,
Around The World In 80 Days.
It was produced by Mike Todd,
but Niven played a leading role in every sense,
as he explained in a Film Night Special in 1970.
Mike made me, not officially, but very unofficially,
his assistant producer,
cos he'd never made a movie before.
So I was in on all the casting.
Mike said to me, "Who's going to play Mr Fix?"
which is the famous detective. I said,
"There's only one man put into the world to play it, Bobby Newton."
"Oh," he said, "That's a great idea. We must get Newton."
I said, "But I have to warn you, and Bobby will be the first to say,
"that he hasn't worked for a little while
"because he took to the bottle for a long time, you know.
"And it's been a problem. He has a problem."
"Oh, we'll send for him."
I said, "Well, please don't say I said anything,
"because he's a great friend of mine, and he would be wonderful,
"but you must get this worked out."
So he sent for Bobby Newton, and I was standing behind the chair.
In came Bobby, with that marvellous face and blue nose.
And Todd said,
"Newton, you ever heard of Around The World In 80 Days?"
"Ooh, dear fellow, dear fellow!"
He says "How would you like to play Mr Fix?"
"Ooh, my dear fellow, what a role!"
So then Todd said,
"Your pal, Niven here, says you're a drunk."
And I fainted, you know. And do you know what Bobby said?
"Understatement, dear fellow."
And he was marvellous and he took the pledge with Mike.
He never had a nip the whole way through the pictures. Six months.
'In this film, David Niven had a number of ballooning sequences,
'although heights are a problem for him.'
Well, I mean, heights, I get the full vertige.
'Yes, when I read the script,
'it said, "Mr Fogg goes over the Alps in a balloon,"
'I said, "Not me, Charlie. I'm not going over the Alps in anything!"
'So Todd said, "How high will you go?" I said, "Four foot six."
'So, they put it in the contract. "No higher than four foot six."
'Now, the greatest day came, which was the ascent of the balloon
'from Paris or somewhere, and I'm in the basket,
'supposed to be with Mario Cantinflas,'
who was a bullfighter, is a bullfighter, a wonderful actor,
he's also a bullfighter - very brave man.
So... I said, "Mario, I'm not going to go up in that thing, are you?"
He said, "No, nothing would get me up."
And they had the highest crane in the world, 200 and something feet,
with a line with a hook and the basket on the end of it
and the arm was going to go out over the canyon
with a 2,000 foot drop, you know.
So, I said, "Nothing will get me in that."
Mario said..."Me neither."
So, now, we saw these doubles.
These terrible sort of orang-utans came shuffling out,
one with my top hat on and the other one with Mario's other hat
and it was ridiculous. So, Mario said, "We can't have..."
And he started getting into the basket.
Now, the whole glory of the Anglo-Saxon world is on my back, isn't it?
I couldn't let Mario go up with my double.
So, I had to do it. I said, "All right, well...
"Hennessy brandy," and a whole bottle was brought. Glug, glug, glug.
The most drunken performance there's ever been, hanging on those ropes,
I didn't know where I was, and it was absolutely terrifying.
And incidentally, when we landed, the crane brought the basket in
over the top of a village that they'd built,
and we hit the top of the church with the bottom of the basket
and the whole basket tipped right forward,
and I'm looking down about 60 feet...
By 1974, Niven had added the role of successful writer to his CV.
His bestselling autobiography, The Moon's A Balloon,
led to more invitations to talk about his career.
And here, he's talking about how he started out as a Hollywood extra.
It was terrifically overcrowded. I think, at that point,
there were 22,000 extras fighting for 800 jobs every day.
And we got 2.50 for working,
and it meant that, I think, the highest-paid extras
were pulling down 5,000 a year, which is about £800 a year.
They were the highest-paid ones.
And most people were pulling down 150 quid, that sort of thing.
You may have been listed as Anglo-Saxon type,
but, in fact, your first part was as a Mexican bandit.
Mexican bandit, I was. And the first...
Yes, in a Western.
-Yes, you've really done your homework!
And I did 27 Westerns.
Never allowed to speak, of course, with this voice coming out.
And... there was one marvellous moment,
because they used to do Westerns in groups of three, in those days.
And they get the money together... They were usually shot in five days.
So, they'd put everything they could into the first one,
hoping it would make a lot of money,
so they could put more into the second and third.
And this group that I was in,
they had very little money to make the third of the group,
so I arrived to the big scene, 600 extras had been called,
and there were six.
They couldn't afford the others, and the assistant director said...
He said to - the director's name was Aubrey Scotto - and he said,
"Mr Scotto, I'm afraid that's all we've got. We've got the six."
And I was one of six, for some reason.
And he made a marvellous remark, and it should be a book about Hollywood.
He said, "Make it a sleepy village."
And we were given wood and knives and we whittled
and then we changed into Indians and it was marvellous.
I suppose this would account for the amazing number of films
you made in one year.
Because, I mean, 1936 alone, you made six films.
Well, those, you see,
were what were referred to as starring roles by that time.
But also, under contract, a man like Sam Goldwyn, they'd buy you.
I mean, they'd hire you, and put you a long-term contract for very little
and then they would teach you
so that you could go from one picture to another.
And in those days, it would be finishing one picture,
rehearsing the next, and probably doing retakes of the one before.
Everything one reads about you, and from everything you write, really,
one gets the impression that you don't take yourself terribly seriously
or, I won't say your work, but certainly your quality as an actor,
you don't take terribly seriously.
Is this genuine, or a studied...?
No, I don't think it's a studied thing.
I think it is genuine, because, I mean, first of all,
the astronomical luck that I've had.
You can't take yourself seriously.
I mean, by and large, I've done,
whatever it is, 80-something pictures.
The luck of still being at it after all these years is one thing,
because it's all typecasting in the movies, isn't it?
I mean, they never asked me to play a Japanese laundryman or something.
It's always officers, dukes or crooks or dishonest bishops,
or something like that. It's always in the frame.
Yes, you say you don't...
you know, you've been very lucky, which perhaps explains
why you haven't taken yourself or your work very seriously,
but, in fact, there was one film,
Separate Tables, for which you got an Oscar,
so, presumably, you did take yourself fairly seriously.
Oh, no, I misled you. I do take my work very seriously indeed.
And I pride myself on never having been late in 40 years,
and all that, and take it very, very seriously.
And I do my best, and get there knowing the jokes and...
But I don't take the result very seriously,
and I don't expect it to go on forever, and I never did.
The following year,
the publication of a collection of his favourite tales from Hollywood
meant a visit to the Parkinson show.
And once again, Niven would show that no-one could top him
as a showbiz storyteller.
Do you find inspiration comes easily to you?
No, not at all. I mean, first of all,
I've got absolutely no powers of concentration whatever.
And if it's a nice day, I can't write,
because there's something else to do.
And if it's raining, it's too dreary to write.
I make any excuse.
If an aeroplane goes over, it's a bonanza. I watch that for hours.
And my wife, I can't wait, I beg her to come along with some awful news
that the boiler's burst or something.
And finally, I've got one little chair in the garden,
right up against a corner of a hedge, like this...
-I can't even see the sky, and I sit there and do my best.
Do you regard yourself now as an actor or as an author?
Oh, as an actor. I mean, I regard this as a terrific...
..not a sideline, even, I'm an amateur at it.
I love doing it, if it's a success, and I was so happy with it,
with the unexpected success of the other one,
because I really wrote it for a few chums for Christmas.
You've got an awful lot of chums!
I mean, it's ridiculous. I don't know what will happen this time.
But how do people regard you now, David?
When you meet people, do they think of you as David Niven the author,
or David Niven the actor?
Well, I tried it on the other day. I went home, we live near Nice,
and I know all the little men down there...
So, usually, when you fill in that thing at the airport,
on the flight, "Occupation," I always used to put actor,
so, this time, I put author, just for fun.
"Oh, Monsieur..." I got all this bit from him saying,
"Why have you changed your profession?"
I said, "Well, you may not have heard, but, even in French, I've written a bestseller."
And he says, "That does not make you an author. That makes you a fluke."
Bring On The Empty Horses,
it's an intriguing title for a book about Hollywood.
How does it arise? Where does it come from?
Well, I have to put a little self-bleep machine into this.
-You don't have to.
-I do, I think.
-You do? All right.
There was a great Hungarian director called Mike Curtiz,
and he was directing The Charge Of The Light Brigade,
and his English was very peculiar.
And Errol Flynn and I were standing underneath the rostrum,
he was on it, and the charge had taken place, a lot of it,
and as you know, everybody was killed,
and it was time for about 200 rider-less chargers to arrive,
so Mike, with his megaphone, says, "Bring on the empty horses!"
And so Flynn and I fell down, you know.
And he turned on us, he turned on us through the microphone,
the megaphone, it was in those days,
"You bums, you lousy, limey... You jerks!"
He said, "You and your goddamn language,
"you think I know bleep nothing, and I know bleep all!"
LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE
You've been in Hollywood for, what, 40 years, haven't you?
I've been in the business 40 years.
I lived there for all those 25 years and I go back often.
What was it... Do you remember distinctly your first impression
of Hollywood when you first arrived there?
That was the early '30s, of course, and Hollywood is a...
..a small... outcrop of a huge town, really.
Los Angeles then was the biggest city in area in the world.
In fact, there was one square mile for every four inhabitants,
cos large chunks of it weren't built over.
Hollywood is a sort of suburb and it was rather a baroque, dusty place,
and you have to imagine the big horseshoe of the Pacific like this,
and here is a horseshoe of hills, about a few miles away,
and then 20 miles of valley on the other side of hills,
and then a horseshoe of mountains with snow on them.
And the sun sets this way and Hollywood's up against those hills.
And it's a spectacular setting.
But the architecture was ridiculous really,
because the city planners got left behind all the time.
The place grew faster than they could plan.
And Hollywood itself is this one rather strange, rather sad little suburb,
and all the studios were sprinkled all over the city which had no transport really,
so we'd have to get up at three in the morning to get to work.
And one oasis of charm in the place was Beverly Hills, then,
in those days, and all of the streets were planted with different trees,
acacias and palms and magnolias and pines and eucalyptus - beautiful.
I took the trouble to go once and ask the Rodeo Land and Water Company
which had subdivided the place,
who did it and, to our great credit, it was a man from Kew Gardens.
-He started that whole extraordinary thing.
What was it like being a young struggling actor in those days
in Hollywood? As you said, they were the great days.
There was a big industry there.
But of course you didn't walk in straightaway and become a superstar, did you?
No, I was an extra and that was hell. That was really hell.
What kind of extra were you? Classified...?
I was classified because there were the dress extras
who were very snooty, and they had clothes for every occasion.
They had ball gowns and race-going clothes and office clothes,
and bankers' clothes and all of that, and they got paid 10 a day,
which is about three quid, I suppose,
and then there were the people who looked all right in uniforms,
could walk properly, and the rest of us were the cattle.
I was one of the cattle. And we were put in, sort of, ethnic groups.
There were, you know, Asian and American red and American white,
and American black, and I was Anglo-Saxon type 2,008.
But the thing that struck me about Hollywood was how difficult it was
to get there, because one forgets how enormous that country is
and from New York to California is only a little bit shorter distance
than from London to New York, so it was four days and four nights
on a train, or about two weeks in a ship,
going around by the canal,
or 24 hours flying in the most horrendous aircraft at 5,000 feet,
flapping about in that awful weather,
with every possibility of thudding into the Allegheny Mountains on the way.
So nobody came out from Broadway, unless they were big stars,
and there was no television,
so the only way into Hollywood was there in Hollywood itself,
so you went there if you wanted to be in it,
and became an extra and prayed - and starved usually.
Starved, literally? You would find something else to do?
There were 22,000 of us at one point registered,
looking for 800 jobs every day.
How many of that lot, who started as you did as an extra,
made stardom as you did?
I think, honestly, a tiny, tiny proportion.
And if the first prize, which is only a prize for a day, the Oscar,
it's a group effort anyway, but somebody gets it each year,
I think... I went down to Central Casting the other day,
and they now have computers,
and it's something like a million to one against.
The luck is absolutely horrendous.
Do you remember the first lines you ever spoke
when you moved from being an extra?
Yes, I remember the first three lines I spoke.
One was, I said,
"Hello, my dear". No -
"Goodbye, my dear," to Alyssa Landy at a railway station.
I was such a smash in that that I was hired...
..hired to say, "Hello, my dear," to Ruth Chatterton at another station.
And then my big moment was in a Sam Goldwyn production
with Miriam Hopkins and Joel McCrea and Edward G Robinson.
I was a Cockney sailor and I was shown out of the window of a brothel
in San Francisco, into three foot of mud, and I said,
COCKNEY ACCENT: "All right, I'll go."
And Miriam and Joel and Eddie Robinson and some donkeys
and 40 vigilantes walked over the top of me.
-An auspicious debut.
What about...? One of the fascinating things that comes out
in what you've written is the amount of importance that was attached
in those days in Hollywood to publicity,
to the value of publicity, making yourself known.
What kind of tricks did they get up to? Publicity experts?
Mike, in those days it was not great talents, it was great personalities.
There were probably 40 people who could support a picture.
Today there are probably four who can support any picture,
and it was a case of publicity building up grains of sand until
they became sizeable hills that could be seen a long way off, really.
And they got up to all sorts of tricks.
The first publicity man came from the circus,
came from Barnum and Bailey Circus, a man called Harry Reichenbach.
And he was hired in the early days to publicise one of the first
Tarzan pictures, and he booked a room in a hotel on the ground floor,
right opposite where the theatre was in New York where it would open,
and a large packing case was delivered to his room,
and then he pressed the bell
and ordered eight pounds of chopped hamburger for lunch.
So the waiter tottered up with this great platter,
and there was a large lion sitting at his table
with a napkin round his neck. LAUGHTER
So the waiter sued Harry Reichenbach amid immense publicity.
That was really the first publicity stunt, and it sort of backfired.
He got badly sued. The next one... LAUGHTER
The next one that backfired was Mae West.
Mae West backfired - that sounds very strange.
The next one that backfired was Mae West.
She was doing a movie called It Ain't No Sin.
And they had a brilliant idea, and they got together 140 parrots.
And put them into intensive training,
and these poor animals were taught to say, "It ain't no sin".
They were going to be put on perches in hotel lobbies
all around the city for the opening of the picture,
and at the last minute, the Hays Office,
which was the group in charge of the morals of Hollywood,
decided that It Ain't No Sin was a dirty title
and changed it to I'm No Angel.
So the poor bloody parrots were taken away and given a crash course...
..and then there were put on the perches,
and frightful noises and whistles came out
and they were sent home in disgrace.
The other people, of course, who were around about that time
- it's absurd, isn't it? - were the gossip columnists?
Again, as you say, Hollywood invented the publicity stunt.
They also invented the gossip columnist, didn't they?
You suffered or certainly lived through
the two most powerful women...
They were immensely power... Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons.
One was short and fat and the other was long and thin.
And they were both mines of misinformation.
But they were very, very powerful because, between them,
they covered every single newspaper in the United States.
They had millions of readers.
And they had daily profiles they did, they were very powerful.
I don't think they could ever destroy anybody who had great talent.
They both hacked away at Marlon and never destroyed him.
They had terrific favourites and they had terrific enemies.
Hedda's great enemy was Orson Welles because he made Citizen Kane,
and Hearst, of course, was the prototype of that,
and Hearst was her boss.
And Hedda took against Chaplin, she loathed Chaplin
because she was very politically minded.
But it was much easier with those other things...
She thought he was very left-wing and a commie and all that stuff.
In fact, as she was dying aged 82,
she'd written her last column the morning before, she said
"I hear that son of a bitch Chaplin's trying to get back in the country -
"you've got to stop that," and then died.
But they were very rough, and the studios used them...
I was under contract with Sam Goldwyn for 15 years,
and something happened,
I had a contract that was coming up for renewal
or dissipation or something... LAUGHTER
And Goldwyn decided to soften me up for the kill,
and to get me to settle for less money.
And I was rather popular, I thought, at the studio.
I'd been there as a beginner. And I picked up the paper -
headline, "Niven Unbearable Say Fellow Workers."
And a big thing saying I had got so swollen-headed that nobody could work with me, and hated me...
Goldwyn... And Louella put it in to help Goldwyn. I mean, that sort of thing did happen.
It must have made life very uncomfortable, and I suppose you had to be pleasant to these people?
Well, you did. We were all whores, really,
because it was much easier to go with them than against them.
They could make it very uncomfortable for you.
Did you ever get a chance...
The problem is that actors particularly
always say that their problem is they can never get back at their critics.
Did you ever manage to get back at any of them?
Well, we did a little thing once.
Ida Lupino was a great friend of mine,
and she was married to a very rough man called Howard Duff. She still is.
And my wife - Hjordis, my wife -
we loathed Hedda and Louella at this point, we'd both had problems with them,
all four of us had had problems.
So we had a little plan, and we had dinner together,
and then I called up Ciro's which was the sort of chic nightclub,
and booked a table for two.
And the head waiter said, "Oh, yes, Mr Niven, just you and madam?"
And I said, "Just give me a quiet corner table, in the dark."
And then Ida and I arrived.
And, terrific twittering, because there were spies everywhere for the columnists,
in all the brothels and in all the hospitals and everywhere...
And immediately, the next thing I knew
about 15 cameramen arrived, and Lupi and I are sitting in one corner
and she's nibbling my ear and the whole bit...
And right in the middle of all this excitement, in comes Howard and Hjordis,
and go to the other side of the dance floor.
And Lupino says - she overdid it - "You must flee!
"You must flee", I mean...(!) LAUGHTER
And then Howard - who was reputed as a brawler, you know -
he spotted us and kicked over his table, crash -
now everybody in the place is watching him. Everybody's waiting.
And I pretended to be a bit gassed, and I got up from mine,
and we took our coats off.
Now, all the photographers getting into position for the kill...
And the dance floor's cleared, and we go on the dance floor,
and we circle round looking at each other.
The classic Western ending, you know,
and then finally we grabbed each other, kissed each other on the mouth and waltzed all round the room.
LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE
Louella called me in the morning -
said she would not be woken up for false alarms!
How difficult was it, though, to remain unimpressed by it all,
once having made it?
Was any advice ever offered to you, that you hung onto,
which kept you sane and a survivor in Hollywood?
Well, Gable was a great chum of mine,
and he was a real feet-on-the-ground man. We used to go fishing a lot.
And he always said, "If you ever get to the top,
"be tough with the brass, with the moguls.
"And don't forget," he always said, "it's a terrifying scenario
"we're taking part in, and we're going to get it in the end.
"Everybody expects that."
He used to say, "I personally take Tracy's advice - Spencer Tracy's advice -
"which is to get there on time,
"know the jokes, take the cheque and go home."
But I think, honestly, Michael, you're being complimentary.
I think I WAS getting completely out of control,
because it's very difficult not to believe your own publicity.
It was in those days, because there was so much of it, pages and pages.
As I said before, in those days, before television,
there was no competition, so the Sunday Express here, for instance,
would have four, five or six pages on Sundays of Hollywood news.
And it was incredible.
And you began to read your own publicity and believe it.
And, you know, if you read 3,000 times a week that you have a very
attractive twitch of the right eye...
you begin to twitch.
I was twitching all over, I was...
I think I really was saved by the war, because I came back here
and for six and a half years was brought down to Earth, smartly.
But did all this put an impossible strain on your married life, for instance?
Very much so. It really did, because...
For instance, in our marriage - which has lasted for 20-something years, thank God -
it certainly put an awful strain, because Hjordis is very, very beautiful,
and she was a top model in Sweden and so on. Now, a very beautiful woman...
should immediately - I mean, this is just a tiny example -
should immediately attract the attention if a couple walks into a room, or a restaurant.
But if she walks into it with a dreary old bulldog face
that's been around for 500 years, she gets it second. Or used to, anyway.
And table hopping, when people are plucking at you in Hollywood...
She's left there standing. And it got to such a point, she left.
-She said, "I've got to find out if I'm anything any more" -
this was after years of marriage to her, she left, she took off for four months.
And I realised the horrendous thing, that because of all that nonsense
I was taking the most important thing for granted, really.
But thank God we got the show on the road again and everything was all right.
The marriage was reported to be unhappy,
with claims that Niven had numerous affairs.
But, with typical humour, he said he wanted to go down as
the only Hollywood actor who never got a divorce.
In 1981, Niven was back on Parkinson,
promoting his second novel this time,
but, once again, treating the audience to more stories
of his extraordinary encounters.
It's extraordinary, in fact, looking at the kind of people,
the range of people that you've met.
Just about everybody who's anybody, you met at one time or another.
I mean, you met, during the war - when you came back to England
from America to join up -
you met Churchill, didn't you, on a couple of occasions?
I did, I was so lucky to meet him, and so lucky to meet so many people.
I met him because, when the Germans had taken most of Europe -
all of it, in fact - they had a beam from France over Chequers,
and a beam from Norway, like that, so that all they had to do was
send a bomber down the beam and drop an egg on Chequers.
So a man called Ronnie Tree had a lovely house in Oxfordshire,
and he gave Churchill a wing for the war
where he could go for weekends, and that sort of thing.
And he used to be there with his staff,
Portal and Douglas and all these people, fascinating.
And Duff Cooper and Eden...
And I had no home, and Tree also let me spend my leave there,
in his part of the house, obviously.
So I used to meet him when I went on leave, and he was fascinating.
And he loved, um...
He loved the movies, loved to talk to me about the movies.
He loved Deanna Durbin.
"Great talent," he said, and all that.
And the first day I saw him, I'd just come in late
with the uniform on, and he got up from the table
and walked, everybody stood up, he came to me and said -
and they were all listening, all these great admirals
"Young man, a most magnificent effort to give up
"a most promising career to fight for your King and country."
I said, "Oh, well..."
And he said, "Mark you, if you had not have done so,
"it would have been despicable." LAUGHTER
What other memory do you have of him, David, anything at all?
Well, he loved to go for walks. He'd take me for walks,
and I remember when it was absolutely at its blackest,
when the Japs had just sunk the Prince of Wales
and George V off Malaya, and terrible disasters in the desert.
And I said to him, somewhere in the middle of Oxfordshire,
I said, "Do you think that America will ever come into the war?"
And he said, "You mark my words, something cataclysmic will occur."
"Cataclysmic" I've never heard before or since, but...
And, six weeks later, Pearl Harbor.
It turned out, another four months go by and I get leave again,
and there he was - "Come for a walk." Off we go.
So I asked him if he remembered it. He said, "Certainly, I remember."
So I said, "What on Earth made you say it?"
He said, "Young man, I study history."
What you've build up over the years, both as an actor and as a writer,
is a sort of personae which is beloved, actually.
That's what you are, with people who read you.
No, it's true, this is exactly what you are.
But is it necessary for you to be liked? Do you work hard at it?
I don't work hard at it but, let's face it,
I think everybody who becomes an actor
probably becomes an actor for just that reason they want to be liked.
It could stem from being bashed around in school, like I was.
But my bashing around is nothing to being brought up in the Gorbals
or something like that.
But for its size, it was nasty,
and I think I definitely wanted to be liked,
and I started doing concerts and things at school to be liked,
and tearing the trousers and all that to be liked.
And don't think for one second when I walked down those steps
and all those sweet people clapped, I didn't enjoy every second of it.
This is a silly hypothetical situation -
supposing you went into a room, and there were 20 people there
who liked you, and one from whom person you felt hate,
-what would you do?
-Go straight to them.
-And charm them?
Absolutely, go right at 'em. Oh, yes.
You couldn't stay there if you felt that somebody didn't like you?
But, you know, in the old days, before transatlantic flights,
you used to cross on the big liners.
And arriving in New York, on the Queen Mary or something like that,
they had passenger lists and they had a big room for the press
who came out on the cutter, the pilot cutter.
And they'd say who they wanted to interview,
and you'd be wheeled in, and there was one man I'll never forget,
you'd do your best and he'd just be sitting like this...
And you'd go for him all the time, try to make him like you.
Have you ever not liked yourself?
Yes. I've done... not awful things, but nasty things.
I did a beastly thing, once.
I had an agent, a very good agent.
And he'd done very well for me, he was a very nice man, a friend.
And my contract was just coming up with him to renew,
and I was going to renew it, of course.
And the top agent of Hollywood, who only had about five people,
a man called Bert Allenberg, and if you were with him, that was it.
The big golden gates would open, he had so much power.
And he said, "David, I want to handle you."
And I said, "Well, what about Phil Gersh?"
He said, "That's your problem, kid."
And I sat up all night...
Michael, greed won.
Greed won, and I went to see Gersh,
and I said, "Phil, I'm sorry,
"I'm not going to renew." He said, "Why not?"
I said, "I don't know, I just want to change my butcher."
He said, "You know, you're the only actor I've ever liked.
"I'll never handle another. You're just like the rest.
"I'll only handle directors and writers." And, sure, he did.
And I crawled away, and I went to see Allenberg and said, "I've done it."
And he said, "That's great.
"Now tomorrow I'm going to see Zanuck, LB Mayer on Tuesday, Warner,
"and I'll have great news Thursday morning.
"Call me Thursday morning. Big contracts."
Couldn't wait for Thursday.
I felt a little bit ashamed, I called on Thursday morning,
and the secretary was crying. I said, "What's the matter with you?"
And she said, "Mr Allenberg died in the night."
AUDIENCE GASPS AND LAUGHS
-You still cringe at that.
-I still cringe, yes.
Do you see yourself as a sort of survivor of a lost time?
Well, let's face it, my group's been called up.
Yes, I am a survivor.
And I'm not going to volunteer for the next thing, but...
Yes, I suppose I am a survivor, thank God.
It's... It's been such fun.
I'm so lucky - how many people in this room, in this country,
can really say, "I'm doing a job I love," you know?
So many of us scratch around doing our best
and not really liking it very much.
But when you look around now,
I mean, the one thing that you could honestly say about yourself,
which is enviable, I suppose, to any young person in the business now,
is that you were in the business at a time when
it was the most glamorous, the most exciting,
the most fun business in the world. It must have been.
And it had a certain amount of style,
which, singularly, is lacking now. Do you find that?
Does what's happening today disappoint you when you look
at what's happened to your industry and to people in it?
It doesn't, Michael.
It's changed completely. The star system has gone, of course,
but there's much more opportunity for people.
As I said before, with 22,000 extras,
how much talent never got a chance to open its face?
Now there's television,
and even doing a commercial people are discovered,
and I think it's much easier for the young to start now,
but much harder to keep going, because they're not backed up
by the studios and by the contracts and by the family system.
I think it's great, I think they're making wonderful movies now,
really great movies now.
But it's frightfully tough, because a lot of muck is made,
and I'm afraid that, when people get entertainment free,
they don't criticise the quality, and I think we're not making movies
now really for a movie audience any more,
we're making movies for an audience that's...
not brainwashed, but so used to television,
and so many of the series churned out in America are so slipshod,
and thrown together, not time to write them well.
But people get used to it, they don't even listen, maybe.
I think the standard's gone down.
How, generally speaking, do you view old age?
-Because you're 70 now, aren't you?
71. So, how do you view it?
How do you view this phase of your life?
Well, there's no point in saying...
Look at this "lugghh" that's suddenly happened tonight,
-I don't know what that is.
-That's nerves, David, that's nerves.
But I try to be the best I am for my age, the best I can do for my age.
I do everything, I ski and swim and all that sort of thing.
But I don't view the future with any great longing.
And, um, I just hope that I'll be gone before those awful things
start dropping, the big ones.
Something alarming, very much, about the big ones
is that I read today that America's arming like mad,
but I don't think anybody's going to let it off.
But what I do think none of my business, this
but the thing that worries me is
our national game is football, or cricket.
America's cricket or football.
Germany, football, everybody's football,
and Russia is chess.
That worries me very much.
Thank you very much indeed for being my guest tonight.
All the best with your novel, Go Slowly, Come Back Quickly,
I'm sure you'll have great success with it.
-Ladies and gentlemen, David Niven.
-Thank you very much.
This was Niven's last television interview for the BBC.
It was reported that family and friends were shocked by it,
thinking that his slurring speech was a sign
that he'd suffered a stroke.
Within a year, he'd been diagnosed with motor neurone disease,
and two years later he died at home in Switzerland, aged 73.
At his funeral, the biggest wreath came from
the porters at Heathrow Airport, with a card that read,
"To the finest gentleman that ever walked through these halls."
He made a porter feel like a king.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
A retrospective look at television appearances made over the years by the Oscar-winning actor David Niven, capturing the milestones and highlights of his life and career. Narrated by Sylvia Syms.