First transmitted in 1972, Michael Parkinson's special guest is David Niven.
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BBC Four Collections -
specially chosen programmes from the BBC Archive.
For this Collection,
Sir Michael Parkinson
has selected BBC interviews
with influential figures
of the 20th century.
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and other BBC Four Collections
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Good evening and welcome.
It can be said of my very special guest tonight
that he's lived a full and varied life.
He has, in order of ascending merit,
been a shoplifter, bootlegger,
organiser of indoor pony races,
gambler, hell raiser, man about town,
Oscar-winning film star and writer.
Once upon a time, believe it or not, he was put up for auction.
There were no takers.
All this, and he's still only 21.
Ladies and gentlemen, David Niven!
As I said in my introduction, although I can hardly believe it,
you were once put up for auction - there were no takers.
How did that occur?
Well, that was a long time ago in New York, and I was broke.
And I was selling booze with some ex-bootleggers.
And there was an old sort of society hostess lady called Elsa Maxwell,
who was famous in those days.
She gave these great big parties and things.
And I tried to sell her some booze,
and she said, "This is not a good thing. You should marry a rich wife."
So I said, "Well, how do I do that on 40 a week,
"which is what I'm getting from the booze people?"
So she said, "Well, I tell you what,
"I'm running a thing for the Milk Fund,
"which is a big charity,"
and it was a big dance.
She said, "I want you to be one of the professional dance partners,
"you and people like Jock Whitney" -
he became ambassador to Great Britain, didn't he? -
"and those sort of people."
And she said, "You wear a green carnation and charge 20 a dance."
Well, I'd made about 40, I think, for the fund,
and then an awful thing happened.
They wheeled on a sort of imitation section
of the New York Stock Exchange,
and they had votes
and people bought shares for the most popular man in New York.
Now, they had all these names of all these people they all knew,
like the Jock Whitneys and all these people,
and at the bottom was David Nevins, N-E-V-I-N-S.
And they thought that was the man
who'd made the microphone or something.
And nobody bought anything, you know?
And it was the most awful day of my life.
And you saw these ticker things going on
and thousands of dollars going against everybody else,
and poor David Nevins at the bottom.
- Must have been soul-destroying. - Awful.
Terrible. I bet it's the first time you've come bottom of the league
- in any stake for women, though? - Well, I don't know!
Don't be modest!
But I mean, that was a sort of out-and-out attempt, I suppose,
to sort of pair you off with somebody in New York
at the time when you were in fact single,
but how did you manage in that period before you were a film star
for feminine company in New York?
I mean, you have this reputation - or had this reputation -
of being a sort of man about town
and a gay persuader of ladies and this sort of thing.
Did you have a hard time with them generally there?
Well, I think it's always a hard time to get the real goodies, you know?
No, New York was all right.
There were lots of young people broke too,
and it worked out pretty nicely.
Any sort of spectacular mishaps?
Well, there was one... Oh, yes, there was one!
I was visiting some people in Greenwich, Connecticut,
and somebody took me skating, which I'd never done before,
so I had a cushion strapped on my bottom.
And it had an Indian's head on it, I remember that.
And I was crashing round this ice,
and there was a very, very beautiful girl
doing figures of eight round an orange.
And I got out of control,
and I cut the orange in half and knocked her over.
And I picked her up again, and I got her telephone number and name,
and her name - I remember it to this day - was Bea Hudson.
She said that her father was a doctor
and they lived at 850 Park Avenue or something like that.
So I said could I call her up
when I came to New York, you know, as a booze salesman.
And she said yes, so I got to New York,
and I couldn't remember the address.
And I looked in the thing and I saw D Hudson,
which she said was her father's name. A lawyer or something.
Anyway, I called the number, and I said, "Can I speak to Miss Hudson?"
And a voice said, "This is she," you know?
So I said, "Well, I'm the man
"that cut your orange in half," you know?
- She said, "What?" - I said, "Don't you remember?
"I had a cushion on my behind."
Anyway, I got the whole thing wrong,
and it was not the one I thought at all.
Now, you've got to believe this, Michael, it's completely true
that, by some miracle, it was another girl called Bea Hudson.
And she said, "Well, the thing is
"that the number you called is my husband's number,
"and he's a lawyer, and this is 650 Park Avenue,
"and the one you thought you were calling was a doctor,
"and he's 850 Park Avenue. You've got it all wrong."
So I said, "Well, how's the husband?"
And she said, "Well, he's fine."
And I said, "Where's he work?"
And she said, "He works downtown."
And I said, "A long way downtown?"
She said, "What do you...?"
And I said, "Well, I tell you what,
"why don't you leave him downtown and come and have lunch with me?"
You know, it's easy to be brave on the end of a telephone, isn't it?
So she said, "I never heard such nonsense in my life."
By the very fact she didn't hang up, I knew that, you know, something...
So anyway, I pressed on, I was brave.
I said, "Well, come on, none of you American women,
"middle-aged ladies, you've got no guts."
"Middle-aged? I'm 22!"
Then you know...
So she said, "Well, you might be a burglar. You might be a kidnapper.
"You might be a murderer. You might be anything."
So I said, "I'll tell you what I'll do.
"I will wear a blue and white spotted scarf and a red carnation,
"and I will stand on any street corner you name at one o'clock,
"then you can drive by, you can walk by,
"and if you like the look of the thing you see on the corner,
"then we have lunch way uptown, away from this horrible husband," you see?
So I went, and she gave me an address,
and it was right outside the Bankers Trust company, a big bank.
And I'd bought a bunch of roses, you know?
And it was 14 degrees below zero, and the roses started to go black,
and I'm freezing to death and standing on the thing.
It was one o'clock, it was half past one, a quarter to two,
and finally, about two o'clock, a very attractive girl went by
and she said, "Hello, Mr Niven." And I said, "Hello!"
And she went straight past, like this.
And then another one came from this way and said, "Hello, Mr Niven."
And another one went past. Then three more. "Mr Niven..." You know?
And they went by in taxis,
and this girl had called up all her chums, you know?
And the final achievement was a singing group from Western Union.
And I'm there, and...
# Happy lunchtime to you... # from these brutes.
Enough to put you off women for life!
I finally met her, and she was divine, but I didn't that day.
Can I ask you, going back before that time,
what was your introduction to the fair sex, David?
Do we get bleeped on this programme?
No, no. No, we don't get bleeped. You may speak freely.
I know what you're getting at, Mike!
Well, you can take the bleeps out.
Anyway, I was sort of almost 15.
That's my excuse, anyway.
And we lived in London,
and there wasn't room for me in this small house,
so I was farmed out into a room up at St James's Place somewhere,
and we lived in Sloane Street.
And so, every night after dinner,
this creepy stepfather I had used to give me tuppence for the bus,
number 19 or 22 or 30. I remember those up Sloane Street.
And I used to get off at the Ritz hotel
and walk down into my ghastly burrow
with a pot under the bed and all that.
So, I got more adventurous,
and I used to walk further on, up to Piccadilly
and look at all the lights, you know,
the Bovril and Owbridge's Lung Tonic and all those lovely things!
And then I realised that lots of girls were walking about, you know,
at the same time.
Then I once saw a spectacular pair of legs,
and I followed this girl, just to look at her.
And she seemed to have an awful lot of men friends, you know,
and she would talk to people.
And so I went to my room, and I kept on thinking about this girl.
The next night, I couldn't wait to get up to Piccadilly again,
and I walked around, and I couldn't find her.
And finally I did, and I saw her
with a very-nice looking man I thought was her father,
a man with a dinner jacket.
And she took him into this little house in Cork Street.
And I hid and waited to see if she ever came out again.
And she did come out - quite soon, as a matter of fact!
So anyway, after that I really thought of this girl all the time,
and I used to go looking for her at night.
one night, she suddenly turned on me.
She was a lovely cockney.
She said, "What do you want? Do you want a piece? What are you doing?"
What was she talking about? I said, "Er..."
She said, "Do you want to come home with me?"
And I said, "Yes!"
So I'm taken to this dream...!
She took me into this flat, and I thought,
"This is going to be the ginger beer and the gramophone record," you know?
A likely story!
And then she gave me this ghastly book of photographs and said,
"Look, if you have any trouble, take a look at these first."
And so I...
And then she appeared with the usual thing,
the sort of pink shoes and nothing else,
and I'm gibbering, absolutely gibbering.
So she said, "You can wash over there. Wash over there, dear."
And there was a little terrible sort of kidney-shaped table
full of blue fluid, you know?
So, I didn't know...
And I washed my hands.
I think that's a marvellous introduction to the fair sex.
I tell you what, it beats sex education films, doesn't it?
It really does!
And then I know, reading your book, too,
that you became so very fond of her, didn't you?
That's true, I really did.
It sounds corny and odd,
but I think I fell in love with her very much.
And she used to come down and see me at school.
And she'd never seen the country before.
She came from Hoxton. Never seen the country.
She used to arrive with this ghastly tartan rug
and potted-shrimp sandwiches.
Oh, dear! Well, thank God for the rug, anyway!
Did she ever meet any...?
I mean, it must have been a bit dangerous to go into school.
You were at boarding school at the time, weren't you?
I was. I was up at Stowe.
It had this marvellous headmaster called Roxburgh.
And a cricket match was on.
And she was really a dish, a real beauty.
And Roxburgh came over and saw me sitting on the rug with this girl,
watching the cricket.
And, oh, it was agony.
He said, "May I join you?"
And I said, "Oh, sir, please. This is Miss..."
I won't give the name, even now.
So she said, "You don't look a bit like a schoolmaster, do you, dear?"
You know? Anyway, he knew.
- He knew. - Yeah.
Did you, David, at that time have any hint, any ambition
of wanting to become an actor at all?
No, absolutely none.
Well, that's not true. I mean, I did the inevitable...
I'm sorry about this voice.
I had none at all this morning, and it's going to go in a minute.
Well, I had a fascinating and wonderful specialist today
who put things right down, bits of bicycle down to here.
I made no noise at all this morning.
It's very wobbly. I'm sorry. But I'll do my best.
No, amateur night, I used to do amateur things at school, I think,
and then later at Sandhurst I did some concerts.
Because, you know, looking through your career,
it seems you're not a man who's taken anything very seriously at all,
or you give this appearance throughout life,
and therefore a kind of military training, a military career,
seems very much at odds with what you're about.
Was it the loony aspect of the Army that appealed to you?
Well, first of all, I was put in the Army because we had no money.
My mother - my father was killed in the first war,
so her ambition, obviously,
was to get me off the books as quick as possible, you know?
So that was the best way to do it.
And I hacked through Sandhurst.
I enjoyed that. It was very tough in those days,
and I think it probably still is.
And then I was stationed in Malta.
I was in the Highland Regiment in Malta.
What was that like?
Oh, Malta was awful.
And I hope there's no Maltese listening tonight.
They're sweet people, but they're not mad about their island, you know?
And in those days we had the huge Mediterranean fleet there
and just one miserable little battalion.
So when they went away,
we had to guard the place and look after it and everything.
It was funny, a lot of it was very funny, I thought.
And we got two months' leave a year.
We got no money. As a young officer, you got 9/6d a day,
And you had to buy... You were told what to buy,
and the uniform cost 250 quid,
and the Government gave you 50, and that's all you got. It was quite mad.
What was the social life like as a young officer?
Was it, er...? Did it have its moments?
Pretty powerful, really, yes. Yes.
"Powerful" is a good word! You've got to expand on "powerful".
Would you care to expand on "powerful"?
Well, you see, first of all, on the island, there was...
It sounds so awful. It makes me out rather a cad, doesn't it?
But there was thousands of girls,
because there were, first of all,
I don't know how many thousand naval officers' wives there
and wives of all sorts of other people.
Then there was the "fishing fleet" that came out.
The fishing fleet were
the sort of passed-over debs and spotty sort of country cousins
who came out trying to grab these poor sailors that came sex-starved
back from three months
on the Greek islands or somewhere,
trying to get husbands.
And then all sorts of assorted Mid-European ladies
who worked down in the Gut, the Strada Stretta,
I mean the highest-class-type ladies,
but working this ghastly trade down there.
And when the fleet went away, there were 24 of us, you see?
So it was...
It was here also, too,
wasn't it, that you met this character
who's appeared in so many of your films, Trubshawe?
It's hard to believe, David,
that you kept dropping his name in films and things,
that Trubshawe was real and existed, but indeed he did, didn't he?
Oh, indeed he does, too, very much so.
Trubshawe is my best, best man. He's been my best man twice.
I've been married twice, and he's been my best man both times.
And best friend.
And he's huge, he's six foot six
and has a moustache you can see from the back on a clear day.
And he was the first one, you know, to grow one.
Long before Jimmy Edwards was ever thought of
he had a thing out to there, you know?
Fascinating character, Trubshawe.
And I used to put his name... When I got into the movies,
I used to put his name into every one, if I could,
to sort of send a signal to Trubshawe back from Hollywood
that I was still there and thinking of him, you know?
But people got to catch on.
And I was doing, with Larry Olivier, we were doing Wuthering Heights,
and William Wyler was the director, and he said,
"Now, David, Trubshawe's name does not come into the Bronte script.
"We don't have any of this."
And he was listening, he was really watching,
and I was determined to get it in.
And finally, I suppose it was Cathy
unleashed these two great dogs on Heathcliff, which was Larry,
and I had to defend him. And I said, "Down, Trubshawe! Down!" I got it in.
And then that was cut.
And they got that out, they had that taken away.
And the only thing I could do... And I got it in.
I talked to the prop man,
and when Merle Oberon and I were being married in the movie,
walking through the village churchyard,
there was "Here lies my faithful friend, Michael Trubshawe"!
What was interesting about that film, of course,
was it was of the few sort of heavy roles
you've done, wasn't it? You know?
I mean, you made your name as...
It's the world's famous awful part, Edgar in Wuthering Heights.
That's the part that actors avoid if they're starving, you know?
It's the most awful part. Oh, God!
And I was under contract with Sam Goldwyn
and delighted and doing anything I was told to do.
He'd told me to do that.
And I'd read it, and I said, "Not even me.
"I can't do that. No way." You know?
So he put me on suspension at once,
and then William Wyler, the greatest director in the game then,
came to see me, this miserable little actor, and said,
"David, you know, you're the only man who can..."
Well, this was gibberish, but I fell for it, you see? Fool!
And then I found myself in this ghastly outfit,
and there was a...
...an ardent, devout poof who had...
...invented the clothes,
and he made absolutely no room for anything down here, you know?
And I came on the set the first day and he said,
"David, would you please go...?"
It was ridiculous, and I had to go and change.
And this part called for me to cry.
And I read the script that day, and it said,
"Edgar" - me - "breaks down at foot of bed and sobs".
Now, Cathy - this is Merle - is lying dead in the bed
and Olivier's circling purposely round
with a log or something, you know,
and Hugh Williams and Flora Robson,
all these great experts, and I had to weep.
And I said, "But, Willy, I don't know how to weep."
He said, "Speak up." I said, "I can't cry, Willy."
He said, "Louder." I said, "I can't cry!"
He said, "Ladies and gentlemen, you've all heard it.
"Here's an actor who says he can't act. Cry."
- Oh, dear. - Oh, yes.
And then I did. I tried, and everybody laughed.
And Wyler said, "Well, can you make a crying face?"
And I said, "I don't know."
So he said, "Well, give him the blower,"
and I get the menthol in the eyes.
And he said, "Turn the camera," and I bend over the corpse,
and Merle's lying there dead in the bed and Larry with the log,
and I made my crying face
and they gave me the thing, turned the camera,
and he said, "Now squeeze. Squeeze."
And I did this, and a terrible thing happened,
and instead of tears coming out of my eyes,
What a pity it wasn't in colour, that film!
It wasn't, was it?
Going back before that, David,
because you've come on, you've cut out a huge chunk there,
which was the time when you first came to Hollywood
and sort of got under contract to Goldwyn.
What was it like in those days?
I mean, Hollywood was in its prime then, wasn't it?
- Oh, absolutely, yes. - The great boom city.
How did you first get in there, get into the film industry?
Michael, I'm basically opposed to elderly actors
reminiscing about their past.
If you can stand it...
..only because those days of Hollywood
certainly were the great days,
I mean between 1930 and 1960.
And I had the great luck and good fortune
to be there the whole time, really,
except for the six and a half years in the war.
take the middle of that, the mid-Forties,
800 million people a week all over the world
bought tickets to go to the movies.
Last year, 120 million bought tickets.
Of course, there was no competition then,
there was no night baseball, no bingo
and, indeed, no television, you know?
So they had it all to themselves.
And they built up these fabulous stars through the star system.
And when I started there,
in a '27 Western as an extra, with this voice...
I wasn't allowed to speak, obviously.
So I was silent, doing Mexicans and things.
And I used to work at MGM Studios,
and that one studio, Michael,
at the same time had under contract,
Garbo, Gable, Joan Crawford...
...John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore...
Marie Dressler and the Marx Brothers.
This one studio.
Then they had sort of second-echelon people doing less important pictures,
like Robert Montgomery, Robert Young, Frank Morgan, those people.
Then the same studio had, in the children's school,
learning acting in front of a camera, the children,
who did their school lessons,
so many hours a day by California law, two hours, or something,
in little canvas boxes on the sound stages,
Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney...
...Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and Judy Garland.
- One studio. - Fantastic.
And they built these characters up.
And the same then, at other studios -
Fred Astaire at RKO,
and Ginger Rogers and Cary Grant, Carole Lombard.
Paramount had Dietrich, Boyer, Gary Cooper, that sort of thing.
And then the public really made gods and goddesses of those people.
Were they, in fact, real people, though, David?
Oh, yes, they were marvellous people, they were very superior people.
- Wonderful people. - "Superior people"?
- Yes. - Really?
I mean, I don't mean "superior" in a snob way.
They were great human beings and very unjealous people.
One finds it difficult to believe that, you know,
when one reads about the processing that went on,
you know, the publicity machine that projected them.
One finds it difficult to believe
that they could ever sort of live up to that kind of glamour.
Well, I think they had an awful time,
because when the public really identified itself,
they saw in those people what they would really love to be.
This is true, I think.
And they saw their ideas of courage and cowardice
and good looks and all that,
but they also had a terrible wish to see the script come full circle,
so that if, as in the normal course of events,
they got older and other people took their places,
or they had terrible home lives or they had illnesses
or, indeed, committed suicide, which a tragic number did...
...the public sort of said,
"Well, it had to happen. That's right. That's correct."
You know? It was very strange.
What about the most unbelievable film star of the lot,
though, David, Garbo?
Because you knew her quite well, didn't you?
I mean, would she really want to be alone all the time?
Oh, no question. She was terribly shy.
And my wife is Swedish, and we got to know her very well.
And really wanted no part of anything else except keeping herself in.
For instance, in our own house, she went there many, many times,
and one day, I said to her, "Oh, look" -
we had a Swedish cook at the time, or somebody was Swedish in the house -
"Will you sign something for her?"
No. Wouldn't do it.
But this is genuine.
Shy in that sense,
and yet, reading your book,
she wasn't averse to taking her clothes off
and going and having a skinny dip.
Oh, no, the first naked woman that my two small sons ever saw
was Garbo in our swimming pool.
- Really? - Mm.
And I had a look, too. Lovely.
David, what about...
When one thinks of that period as well - you mentioned MGM -
you were under contract, of course,
to possibly the most extraordinary character
that even Hollywood invented,
which was Samuel Goldwyn.
What was he like? How did you find him?
Well, he was the greatest, I think,
because he started the whole business, anyway,
and he was the only...
...the only producer in the world, I think,
who put his own money into the pictures, those huge golden pictures.
He never went to the bank. He put his own money in.
He used to say, "The banks can't afford me," you know?
And I was under contract to him for 15 years.
And his name wasn't originally Goldwyn at all.
- No? - No, it was Goldfish.
And Sam arrived from Poland,
because all those fellas who started the Dream Factory, oddly enough,
they were all, practically without exception,
from the ghettos of Europe.
LB Mayer and Goldwyn, who started Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer,
came from... Sam from Poland, Mayer from Russia.
Zukor, who started Paramount, came from Hungary.
Carl Laemmle, who started Universal, came from Germany.
And Lewis Selznick, who had a finger in every pile, came also from Russia.
Sam arrived with an unpronounceable Polish name in New York,
and he was about 15 years old,
and the Irish immigration man said, "Forget it. Goldfish."
And he called him Sam Goldfish,
and he entered America - this is true - as Goldfish.
And later on, he sold gloves for a bit,
and then he became interested in the infant movie business.
And he teamed up with a man,
a young Canadian writer called Cecil B DeMille.
And he got 20,000 together
and dispatched DeMille to make a movie
at a place called Flagstaff, Arizona, in the desert,
called The Squaw Man. It was the first picture.
And it rained for 18 days in Flagstaff,
and DeMille panicked and disappeared
and sent a cable to Sam, saying,
"I've just rented a hut in the middle of an orange field
"in a village called Hollywood,"
and that really was the start.
And Goldwyn went out there...
met a man called - it's nearly over, this long, dull story -
met a man called Archie Selwyn, and they formed a company,
Archie Selwyn and Sam Goldfish.
And, unbelievably, they took two halves of their name
and they called it the Selfish Company.
And then wiser counsels prevailed,
and they took the other halves and called it the Goldwyn Company,
and Sam, with a piece of massive commercial treachery,
nipped off and changed his own name to Goldwyn.
And poor Archie Selwyn was left out in the cold.
That's absolutely astonishing.
Astonishing man. Great producer.
And what about the Goldwynisms?
I mean, were they true or were they manufactured?
A lot of them. You know, one heard about "Include me out"
and "I'll tell you in two words - im possible,"
and "We've all passed a lot of water since those days,"
you know, that sort of thing.
I actually, honestly, honestly only heard him pull one big one
when I was there in the whole time.
What was that? Do you remember?
I do indeed, but it's rather an American joke.
- I hope our friends won't... - No!
Well, quick, anyway.
Field Marshal Montgomery came out,
for something just after the war to do with NATO,
and he was doing something in San Diego with the American navy.
And Sam Goldwyn gave a party for him
and invited 40 carefully selected people from Hollywood,
and I found myself at a table of four
with Field Marshall Montgomery sitting there.
and Frances Goldwyn, Sam's wife, there, and Gary Cooper's wife there.
And Goldwyn got a bit nervous, because of the field marshal,
and the only time he perked up at all
was when somebody said "Shooting tomorrow,"
and he thought it was, you know...
Frances flashed Sam to make a speech, to say something,
and Goldwyn tapped his glass and got up,
and I heard him say behind me - he had a funny voice - he said,
CLIPPED: "It gives me great pleasure to introduce to Hollywood
"Marshall Field Montgomery."
This is, for those who don't know,
the biggest store. It's like Harrods, isn't it?
And so Frances Goldwyn looked as though she'd been hit with a halibut.
And, erm, Jack Warner, without a moment's hesitation,
said "Montgomery Ward, you mean," which is another one, but anyway...
That was the only time I ever heard him pull one.
What about the processing, though,
that went on with you, David, under that?
I mean, when Goldwyn put you under contract,
what happened to you then, when the publicity boys got hold of you?
Well, for instance, they had this sort of questionnaire thing.
They asked you who was your mother, and I said she was French.
He said, "That's great! We can use that."
And he said, "What about your father?"
I said, "Well, he was killed in the Dardanelles when I was four."
I said, "Well, thanks very much!"
So he said, "What rank?"
I said, "He was a lieutenant."
"No good. No good at all."
And they made him a general.
And I was always the son of the famous Scottish general, you know?
And also they made you an assistant, didn't they?
Goldwyn insisted that you went out on the boards for a while,
went out and got some stage experience.
Yes, he did indeed. He said, "Now go and get some experience,"
because he only had four people under contract at any one time.
And he had me for nothing, obviously,
and he had Gary Cooper and Ronald Colman and somebody else.
I've forgotten. Oh, yes, a Russian actress called Anna Sten.
And so he packed me off,
and I went to one of those theatres they had in those days,
because, you see, they used to bring a few people out from New York,
from the theatre,
and it was 20 hours by air, anyway,
flying at 5,000 feet through all that muck
and hitting mountains and everything,
or four days on a train to get there from New York.
So you had to do it right there as an extra,
and all the extras were would-be stars.
And I enlisted in one of those strange theatres
where the actors worked in the night
hoping that scouts would come round from the studios and see them.
And I went to the Pasadena Playhouse, which was a very smart one, I think,
and I got a job in a play called Wedding.
And I was one of 62 guests at the thing.
And I shared a dressing room with a maniac -
who's now a dentist in Omaha, quite rightly -
and he found a whisky called Mist of the Moors scotch,
which was made in Burbank, just round the corner -
anyway, varnish remover, it was.
I didn't worry, I had nothing to do,
I came on as the curtain went up with a big bowl of punch
for the guests, you know, and put it on a table, and went off.
Second act, I had to recognise another guest, I came on and went...
My second act. Then the third act was my big deal -
I had to snatch a conversation with this fellow,
and on my dying oath, this is true, I had to say...
"Well, I tell you, the King of Siam does."
I swear! and he had to say, "Well, I know the King of Siam
"and I tell you he doesn't." And I had to say, "Oh..."
And we'd go off, that was my part. So, for the opening night...
I went round saying, "I'm playing with a rather interesting girl
"at the Playhouse this week, I think if she gets the right breaks..."
So the word went round that I was a great big star.
I went to my dressing room, this ass, this fool
with this bottle of Mist of the Moors,
and...telegrams arriving from people I'd now met.
"Good luck, the first 30 years are the hardest, Clark Gable."
I thought something had gone wrong, so I had a few belts at the Mist,
went upstairs with my bowl of punch and came on - to a thunderous hand!
I did the... Unforgiveable, I put the thing...looked down,
see who was there. And Herbert Marshall, a big star of the day,
had brought a surprise party of 30 - big stars, Gloria Swanson,
Charles Laughton, all out there to see me in my big star thing.
And I...panicked, and tottered off the stage, with the bowl of punch,
thereby screwing up the play entirely, because underneath it
was a note for the leading lady, I don't know. Went downstairs,
"God, give me some Mist," and he gave me an umbrella stand of Mist.
then I came up again and thought, "They mustn't see me," you know?
This time I ran across the stage, like this. Now, the third act -
we'd had a lot of Mist by now, and I was brave and I didn't mind,
and I took this poor man with the arm, and I said, "Now, look,
"I don't want to impose my rather strong personality
"on your very dull brain.
"But I have it right from the horse's mouth,
"I have it on the finest authority that the King of Siam DOES!"
And he said, "Jesus Christ!"
LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE
And that was it - Mr Gilmore-Brown,
"Out of my theatre, both of you." First night.
- Really? - Yes.
- You we...! - Mist and all!
You went back to the stage again later on,
when you were a star, in fact,
- and you... - To the stage, I see what you mean.
- Yes. - Yes, with... Was it Nana, you did?
- Nina! - Nina. Nana! Yes.
With somebody who was in the audience that night.
I thought you meant in the audience now, I nearly fainted.
No! Gloria Swanson.
- Yes, that's right. - That was traumatic, wasn't it?
That was ghastly, it was ghastly.
It was quite a good play in French,
but it was pretty bloody awful
the way we did it in English, I know that.
And we did it... There were three of us in the play - Gloria,
who played my mistress,
and Alan Webb, who played her husband - he's a wonderful actor.
And that was all, just the three people.
And we opened in Connecticut, Hartford and Boston and those places,
then we opened on Broadway, and I'd never done this in my life!
Oh, don't! And Swanson...
had a theory that actors should always have something else to do
except act, she was very right -
and she said... So, she had a clothing company on the side,
called the Pilgrim Corset Corporation or something like that.
And she had a clause in her contract that this company should design
the clothes that she wore in this play,
and they were pretty grisly garments,
I can tell you, they were awful. Anyway, she looked...frightening.
Erm, she wore some pretty funny things in...out of town,
but when we came to Broadway,
Alan Webb and I played the first, explanatory scene, he's the husband,
he his behind the curtain, and the bell rings,
and it's my mistress coming,
and I've been rehearsing how to get rid of her.
In she comes, and she had to fling herself into my arms,
and I'm pretty nervous, because out there's Rex Harrison,
my old chum, and Tallulah Bankhead and all these people, everybody,
opening night. And in came Swanson
in a sort of black taffeta tent.
She's very tiny, she comes up to about here.
And her head's sticking out the top of this tent.
And she flung herself into my arms,
and I was so frightened and unnerved by the whole thing that I grabbed her
and tried to smile
and my lip was so dry that it got stuck above my teeth, like this.
I got this... And I...
And I... And I squeezed too hard in the opening clinch,
and there was suddenly...a loud report
and a sort of twanging noise,
and out of her chest came 4.5 inches of white whalebone
and...and I'm there, and...
it was absolutely...
Ooh, that... Oh!
In case you don't believe me, to prove to you this is true,
I've still got the review that Walter Kerr wrote,
who was the Herald Tribune man...
"We understood from the programme
"that Miss Swanson designed her own clothes -
"like the play, they fell apart in the first act!"
You framed that one, did you?
What about reviews of your... of your own work, David?
I've only actually got one, I haven't got it any more, but...
The first one I ever got from the Detroit Free Press
in a Goldwyn picture, called Splendour.
And it said,
"In this picture we were privileged to see
"Mr Samuel Goldwyn's latest discovery.
"All we can say about this actor - question mark -
"is that he is tall, dark and not the slightest bit handsome."
That would have been awful receiving that.
- Couldn't get much worse. - Absolutely terrible.
David, of all the... Of all the... You mentioned there,
erm, Gloria Sawnson -
of all the leading ladies that you worked with,
which did you enjoy most of all, do you think?
Which gave you most pleasure, working with?
- Without question, Deborah Kerr. - Really? I interviewed her recently.
Oh, she's such a sensational person to work with.
She's a marvellous human being anyway, utterly generous to work with
and such fun -
a ghastly giggler, that's the only thing, she giggles a great deal.
- Really? - Oh!
But a dream to work with,
any actor who works with her should be on his knees.
- Yes. - The biggest male giggler,
I give you 1,000 guesses, you'd never get it, is Marlon Brando.
I did a picture with him, we were playing two crooks,
and every day, we had to work together,
and he's such a fearful giggler, and I'm pretty bad,
that in the end, we played whole scenes
looking at the tops of each other's heads.
Also at that time, when you were in Hollywood,
apart from actors, actresses, producers, directors,
there were one or two extraordinary writing talents around, too,
- weren't there? - Oh, yes.
Scott Fitzgerald, he worked in Hollywood for a time,
they all did their stint.
He did. Goldwyn had Scott Fitzgerald under contract,
and he had Robert Sherwood at the same time.
In fact, Scott Fitzgerald was fired by Goldwyn for a line he wrote
- in a movie that I was in. - Really?
We were doing Raffles, just before the war, and Scott was there,
and he was on the sauce a good bit, you know, by that time.
- Yes, mmm. - And, erm,
he had to polish up the dialogue of Raffles,
and I had to say to Olivia de Havilland,
who was the leading lady, I had to say...
..er, "Part your lips,
She did this, then I said,
"Who is your dentist?" You know...
And Scott was fired, he was thrown out.
- Really? - Yep.
He was a tragic figure, wasn't he? What a talent, and wasted.
- Terrible talent, great talent. - Talking about being on the sauce,
you had a period there, didn't you, with Errol Flynn, where...?
- What was it, cirrhosis by the sea? - Yes.
- Yes. - It was, yes.
- It was the name of the house! - Yes!
You were... What kind of public reaction was there
to the life that you and Flynn led?
Did you ever have clean up Flynn and Niven campaigns going on?
- Well, there was one woman... - Really?
Oh, god! There was a woman in New York
who decided to clean up Hollywood,
and to start with Errol and I -
we shared this house for 18 months together.
But she was going to come out and start on us,
you know, clean us up.
And of course, she came out by train, took four days,
giving interviews at every bus stop.
By the time she arrived at Union Station in Los Angeles,
it was astronomical.
So, the studio put us on a boat and said,
"Get out of the whole place," you know.
- It was really very ugly indeed. - Yeah.
But poor Errol, he was put in jail - no, he wasn't put in jail,
he was, er, sued and summoned
and sued for statutory rape, you know.
Which is absolutely unfair, because the girl, I remember the girl
and she can sue me if she likes...
Her name was Slatterly, something Slatterly.
I remember her often around the place then, and she was...
I swear to you, I thought she was...had to be 22, 23.
And Flynn took her on his boat, and then she said she'd been raped.
And he was... I was back in England by that time.
He was staggered that this had happened
and at the trial, she showed up
with no make-up, pig tails and bobby socks, you know?
- Mmm, mmm. - You know?
And she was actually apparently about...
just under age, whatever it was.
He very nearly went to the box for years.
Yes. I suppose at this time that, er,
that the studio was looking after you all the time, and anything like this,
it sort of closed ranks, and...?
Well, it did, you see.
Take Clark Gable, for instance, not that he ever needed ranks closed,
but he was the king of Metro-Goldwyn,
which was the great studio, the biggest.
And to make sure that Clark really never made a bad picture,
they had, I well remember it, they had
six or seven top writers who had nothing to do
except find, polish and perfect the perfect vehicle for Gable's talent,
- as a personality, really. - Yes.
So that every Gable picture was an awfully good picture, and everyone
- made so many million dollars. - Yes.
So they had to protect these creatures.
Not creatures, he was a great man, but...
Yes, yes. What about
the other thing about Hollywood, David,
I mean, was there, to your knowledge,
not that you ever lay on it,
but was there a casting couch, as such?
I think there certainly was, you know, but I think
very much in the lower echelon,
I don't think that anybody like David Selznick
or Goldwyn was ever shoving actresses down on the casting couch,
I really don't think for one minute. But I'm quite sure
that wretched girls who were trying to get started
would assist the assistants, you know, if there was any
chance of helping things along, but...
That did go on, and also, don't forget that...
..outside Central Casting, when I was an extra, there was a big sign up,
saying, "Don't try and become an actor.
"For every one we employ, we turn away 2,000."
So, the competition was frightening
and ferocious, and these girls, any girl
that won a beauty contest anywhere in the world
sooner or later would arrive with a one-way ticket to Hollywood
and they were working in the shops and the car hops and brothels, and...
- Pathetic, it was really pathetic. - Yes.
In your book you outlined several ploys
that you had about getting to the notice
of producers and things, Zanuck and people like that.
You even went as far as playing polo with Zanuck, didn't you?
Well, yes, but that was quite by mistake.
I... I mean, the whole thing of Hollywood, for people like me,
was to sit out the broke periods and
keep going by working on fishing boats,
which I did, and that sort of thing, until you got a break.
You never knew where they were coming from, and often they lead to nothing,
but I was standing outside a casting office, United Artists Studios,
and Douglas Fairbanks Snr, the great Douglas,
drove through the gates, and he was a wonderful man
but he couldn't remember
to put the right name with the right face,
and he thought I, standing in line
with a lot of extras, was a golfer called Bobby Sweeney,
who once won the Amateur Championship here in America,
and he said, "Hi, come on in!" I was taken out of the line
and got in his car and thought, "God!"
So, I had to tell him I wasn't Bobby Sweeney.
He was wonderful, he said, "Oh, come and have a steam."
The last thing I wanted was a Turkish bath, I wanted a nice hot lunch.
So, he took me into this steam room,
and it's a scene from a movie, I was stark naked on a marble slab,
with Douglas Fairbanks - and I'm an extra -
Sam Goldwyn, Joe Schenck the head of 20th Century Fox,
Darryl Zanuck, who...
had a lot of teeth, Bob Benchley described him
as the only man in the world who could eat an apple
through a tennis racket.
And Darryl Zanuck, and, er...
Oh, yes, and Aidan Rourke, who was a 10-handicap, erm...
polo player, who looked after Zanuck's ponies,
and did some reading for him,
and a man called Sam the Barber, that's right.
And I'm fainting through lack of food and the heat and everything,
hoping that somehow somebody would put me in a movie.
And Fairbanks had a wild sense of humour, and he said,
he knew I was broke, I'd told him, he said,
"Oh, Niven, what will you do this winter,
"play polo or bring the yacht round?"
Yacht! I only had 4, you know, so...
So I said, "Polo, polo, polo!"
and was carried out by Sam the Barber,
who threw me into the ice-cold plunge.
When I came to, Zanuck was bending over me and saying,
you know, "Did...?" Better be careful!
"Does he really play polo?"
And I heard Fairbanks saying,
"Yeah, he played for the British Army."
Played for the British Army! So, anyway, I thought it was a way in,
so Zanuck said, "Would you come and play with my group on Sunday?"
So, I said....
"Aidan will fix you up." Aidan Rourke lent me these ghastly breeches
that were too tight - I could ride,
I'd done 27 Westerns by now, I rode all right.
and I'd done a bit of this in Malta somewhere.
But I'd never played properly, played with good people.
They were all ten-goal handicap people.
Aidan's put me on this thing called
St George, that had a muzzle and bit like a dog.
Frightening animal. I got onto this thing.
He said, "You play in the first chukker
"and the fourth", whatever it is.
"Wear the green vest and...
"play number one and mark Zanuck, he's bad, and..."
I don't know what the hell he's talking about.
I thought, mark Zanuck, make an impression, you know.
So every time Zanuck got near the ball,
I'd come up on this...horrible animal.
And then finally, it ran away, two or three... It got back.
For the second chukker, my knees were shaking, the brute knew this.
Got on it again, and I thought, "I must stay with Zanuck," like this.
And a man called Big Boy Williams,
who was a huge hitter, hit the thing...
Hundreds of people in the stand, including Fairbanks,
it went over our heads, Zanuck and me, galloping like this,
and I'm a bit behind,
and I thought, "If I can ride him off the ball, and maybe even score..."
Because he was the back. Getting up like this, and we were catching him,
and St George lent forward... and bit him in the bum.
Right through the...
And I tried to ignore this rather embarrassing action
at the front end,
and by now, we'd galloped over the ball and trodden it into the ground,
and there was a...
white mushroom top showing there, and...
I'd caught this going by, and I took it,
the awful horse grabbing him by the bum,
and I made a swing with my stick.
It went underneath Zanuck's pony's tail,
and the pony clamped its tail to its behind,
and I'm strapped onto the stick,
and the pony had him by the arse up that end...
And this...horrible triangle galloped past the stand,
and Zanuck, I saw him the other day, he still talks about it.
I didn't work at 20th Century Fox for years!
When you came... You had a spell, you left Hollywood and came back
at the beginning of the war, didn't you,
and did your sort of war service?
What was that like,
was it very difficult being a film star in the army?
Did they allow you special privileges?
It was awfully tricky. That was 1939, and, erm...
it was phoney war time,
nothing was happening, people were being pulled out
of good jobs and warm homes, resenting it deeply,
hating the whole thing because nothing was happening,
then finding themselves in the middle of Salisbury Plain
being told what to do by someone they'd seen two weeks before
making love to Ginger Rogers or something - hated me, I think.
- Yes, yes. - But we muddled through.
It took a long time...
When you got back to Hollywood I suppose it had changed.
Oh, completely, oh, yes.
- It was gone, the sort of...? - Absolutely gone.
And a lot of the old names had gone,
been... A lot of them went off and got taken over,
and it changed very much. Don't forget that, for instance,
all the great gangster pictures Bogie had made just before the war,
and Jimmy Cagney and those people...
When Hitler unleashed I suppose
man's greatest self-inflicted wound, wasn't it,
with god knows how many million people killed,
it made no sense to see gangster pictures any more.
So they got down to realism, finally, in pictures,
- and away from the dream factory. - Mmm.
And people like Marlon...
- and Bogie had always done it, and Spencer Tracy had always done it,
been absolute naturalistic actors -
really took over.
And it was great, and a great improvement, really.
Somehow, it left you in a couple of odd situations, though, didn't it?
As far as work was concerned, from time to time.
The kind of movies that you'd made your name with,
up until leaving Hollywood, they weren't really there, were they?
No. The sort of light comedy things.
I mean, the experts like Carole Lombard
and Bill Powell and those people, no.
But I was, thank God for Goldwyn,
he kept me on under contract for another couple of years.
Until I lost my head and believed my own publicity
and told him to stuff it.
What was his reaction to that?
He fired me immediately.
I suppose the thing that really helped you out again
was meeting Mike Todd, with the Around The World.
He was marvellous, yes, marvellous man.
He is extraordinary, that man.
He is a legend in films, but he's only ever made one movie.
It's the only one he made, Around The World. He was a conman.
Mike, you could think of him as anything, as a great entrepreneur
and a great producer or a conman.
And...I don't know where he got the money from.
For weeks and weeks and weeks, nobody got paid.
I remember when we were in Spain,
I was made deputy to go and talk to Mike
and see if we could get some pesetas to buy something with.
He said, "Right," he worked it all out, what the boys would settle for.
And his secretary, who had lovely bosoms,
and she was told to put on a red sweater
to make her even more delectable
and stand on a certain street corner in Barcelona.
And two taxis arrived,
and men put suitcases at her feet full of pesetas,
and she got in another cab and brought them back.
We got paid in pesetas.
Same deal in Paris.
We got paid in francs.
And two or three times during the picture, it ground to a halt
till funny little men arrived from Chicago and some more money...
I don't know where he got it from, nobody ever found out.
To show you how broke he was,
there were so many leans against the picture when it was finished
that he wasn't allowed to take it out of the state of California.
For the costumes and things like that.
He was allowed to have it for a few hours a day to cut it.
Then it was locked up by the Sheriff in a safe.
He finally got permission to show it in New York for the opening.
And a very smart opening night...
He'd never had a sneak preview to see what it was like.
A smart opening night on Broadway.
And he sent me and my wife, took us there, flew us there,
champagne and caviar in the suite and all this.
And everybody in the audience had beautiful hardback programmes,
with their own name in gold on it, each one, individual programme.
And I know how broke he was because Bennett Cerf, the publisher,
produced those programmes, and the cheque for the programmes bounced.
And Mike got right to the wire.
And then the next day, he could've borrowed 55 billion.
He probably did.
- The kind of nerve I don't have. - Oh, no!
He's a great loss.
In that film too, you got a job for an old buddy of yours,
a marvellous man who I admire tremendously, Robert Newton.
Bobby Newton. A lovely actor.
You see, Bobby's great failing...
Everybody knew it, it's not telling any tales out of school.
Bobby, he liked the Mist of the moors too, you know.
- The gargle. - Yes, the gargle.
And he would over-mist it a bit,
so it was very difficult for Bobby to get employed.
Because he'd take off a bit and come back a bit late.
And so, we were talking about who should play the detective,
I don't know if you remember the story, Mr Fix is the detective.
I suggested Bobby to Mike. He said, "Great!"
I said, "I have to warn you, he's an old friend of mine
"but lately it's been very difficult for him, because..." And I explained.
Mike wanted to see him. I said, "Please, he's my friend,
"don't say, but I have to warn you."
He said, "I won't say a word, you'll be here with me."
Bobby came, and he was blue, he'd been out for about three weeks.
Blue face. Eyes rolling.
And Mike said, "Ever read Around The World in 80 Days?"
"Oooh, dear boy, ooh, lovely, ooh."
He said, "Have you ever heard of Jules Verne?"
"Ooh, oui, dear boy, ooh, lovely.
"Mr Fix, are you offering me the role, dear old cock?"
All this was going on.
Mike said, "But your pal Niven here says you're a lush."
I nearly died.
And Bobby, to his undying credit, said, "An understatement, dear boy."
Immediately hired, took the pledge,
and never had a drop through the whole picture.
Of all those extraordinary people, David, that you met in Hollywood,
and that you wrote about in your book,
which, when you look back, was the one you enjoyed most of all?
The most memorable one?
- I think Bogie, really. - Really?
Honestly, he was such an extraordinary character.
Frightfully intelligent, you know.
And a great sailor. We got together through sailing.
He hated me when he first met me.
He thought I was a very pissy Englishman, as he called me.
And then we became bosom, bosom, bosom friends.
And he actually didn't like actors much, he much preferred writers.
He couldn't stand at the studio, the new group of actors,
although he was very much the new group himself.
He used to call them "Scratch your arse and belch" studios.
But he was great.
The great thing about Bogie was, he was quite a physical coward, really.
He had no intention of getting knocked about, he was quite small.
And every day he'd go into a restaurant
and somebody would come up,
"Think you're so tough, Bogart?"
It never failed.
He had this very tough wife...
Not Betty, she's a dream. She's in London, by the way.
He was married to Mayo Methot, who was a very rough lady.
Bogie would say, "You want to make something of it?"
And push his wife forward. She'd hit them with a bottle!
That's one way of using a wife, isn't it?
Yes. Oh, but, he...
- Am I being a bore? - Of course not!
One night, Bogie was here in London with Betty,
and Hjordis, my wife and I, and John Huston.
We were having dinner at Les Ambassadeurs in London.
And in came one of our dukes.
I'd better be careful here, hadn't I?
A very tall duke, let's put it that way.
And the tall duke was not too fond of me
because he'd invited me once to shoot at his place.
Some partridges, poor little brutes.
We were walking up some stubble, in a long line of people, you know.
It was quite evident to me, having been in an outfit during the war
that used carrier pigeons, that for miles, a carrier pigeon was coming.
It's like being able to tell
the silhouette of a Ford or a Rolls-Royce.
They fly quite differently from a wood pigeon.
It was also quite evident to me that the Duke was going to shoot it.
Some poor old man in Liverpool had let it go,
it was on its way to Devonport.
So he did, he hit it, miles up, down it came at his feet,
everybody then realised he'd shot a carrier pigeon.
I couldn't resist it, I said, "Are there any letters for me?"
So I was...
So I was out of the ducal department.
I was sitting having dinner with Betty and Bogie and John Huston,
and the Duke came in with a lady.
And saw Betty and Bogie and was very impressed,
came over and I introduced him. So then he had to get off.
He said, "When are you going to come and shoot with me again, David?"
I said, "Any time. I'd love to come.
"Just give me a date and I'll be there."
He said, "Well, the fourth week in February, how's that?"
It was then June. I said, "Lovely, fine." And he went off.
Bogie said, "Hey, get a load of you, shooting with a duke!"
Huston said, "It's not all that great a compliment,
"it's the end of the season,
"it's the time when they ask the drunken local butcher
"and a few other people
"and they go around the outside and they shoot the cocks only."
Bogart said, "The cocks only?" He mulled this over.
Pretty soon, somebody said something funny at our table,
and Huston went like that and laughed and fell right over backwards.
And rolled underneath the Duke's table.
So the Duke rose from his chair,
came over and said something very offensive,
"You and your Hollywood friends," or something.
And Bogart was out of the chair like a terrier.
The traditional thing would be to grab him like this.
But the man was up there so he grabbed him by the top fly.
He had him like this.
And lifted. The man was up, off the ground.
He said, "Listen to me, Duke.
"What do you mean, insulting my pal? Cocks only!"
- Have I gone too far? - No!
I'm going to go to jail after this, I think!
They'll send the producers to jail, David, not you or I.
Did you in fact regret the passing of Hollywood, David, as it was?
When you look back?
Well, I did, of course I did.
We were wonderfully spoilt.
Beautifully overpaid, to do,
I've always said, get up in the morning
and dress up and show off,
playing children's games in front of the grown-ups,
this is what acting is.
I love it. Of course, that has gone.
The whole progression of work for actors has gone now in the movies.
I don't know how young actors get started,
I don't know how they keep going, anyway.
Because, as we talked about at the beginning,
the studio contract lists are none.
I don't know how they do it.
What about the personal pressures of Hollywood?
You were separated for a while from your second wife, weren't you?
While you were there in Hollywood.
Is it fairly impossible, the pressures, to remain happy married?
I think, obviously, it depends on the individual.
I think that an awful lot go under.
Because it was so unreal.
And if you read... If you're in that cocoon and in that goldfish bowl,
don't forget at any one time in those days, even up until the 1960s, '65,
there probably were only half a dozen people
or a dozen at one time who were news.
But living in Hollywood were probably 250 members of the world press,
waiting for something from those people.
If they didn't get it, they'd make something up
cos they had an editor breathing down their necks.
Things were being stirred all the time.
It was an absolute false situation.
And entirely my fault, as a matter of fact.
I know that I began to take myself too seriously.
And my wife is not an actress, and I must have become unbearable.
She quite rightly took off for a bit and I had to give it a thought.
Why in fact did you leave Hollywood in the end?
You now live in the South of France.
- Yes. - Why did you leave?
I think it was a mixture of having made a bog of my marriage,
or nearly making a bog of it, and wanting a clean break,
wanting to start off again somewhere else. And also, Scot's blood me,
realising that the movie business was moving to Europe.
The combination of the two, and itchy feet, took us off.
And since then, of course, you've had extraordinary success
with this book of yours, haven't you, The Moon's A Balloon.
It's been published, what, a year now and you've sold 200,000 copies.
And yesterday, we had this lunch, the publisher gave me lunch.
One year, yesterday, a bestseller. Very proud of that.
It's a very readable book, actually. It's very, very funny.
- Did you enjoy writing it? - Yes.
After all, if you're an actor, you're an egomaniac.
And the supreme egomania is to write 130,000 words about yourself, really.
Yes, yes, that's true.
If you look at it like that, it might give me some inspiration!
David, can I ask you, just a couple of final questions.
You've worked since leaving Hollywood,
you've worked all over Europe now.
Have you, on location and all this sort of thing,
have you ever had any narrow escapes at all in that time?
I mean, it's a fairly hairy occupation.
Actually, I've made movies in 14 different countries
in the last 10 years.
And many movies in some of them.
Yes, I've had some nasty spots.
John Frankenheimer nearly got me eaten by sharks in Mexico.
Asked me to jump off a mast.
I said, "What about the sharks?" He said, "There aren't any."
I said, "They ate three priests down the road last month!"
He said, "Nothing, no sharks."
Finally I did this thing.
I came out of the water, everyone clapped,
they thought it was very brave.
Two minutes later, this great grey beast went past.
I said, "John, you son of a... Look, shark!"
He said, "Dolphin, dolphin."
Then, oh yes, I had another horrid thing in Italy.
I was doing a picture with Peter Sellers up in the mountains.
I love to ski.
And it called for me to do a bit of skiing in the thing.
You're not allowed to ski if you're an actor in a movie,
because if you break something, the whole picture's through.
So the director said, "I want you, David, to turn into the camera."
I didn't want to lie. I said, "How do you turn on skis?"
So, he said, "You don't know how to turn?"
I said... I didn't lie, honestly.
Next thing, I knew it would happen, I saw it,
"Mr Niven, ski teacher to teach him how to turn."
It takes you about 10 years to learn how to turn.
Off I went, up the top of the mountain, in my movie ski things,
which were very thin.
It was unbelievably cold, it was January,
at Cortina, and it's high, it was 30 below zero on top.
I went up there with this fellow, and it was, ooh...
Nobody else was skiing, it was so cold.
So we came down, I was following him, we were going rather fast,
faster than I liked, really.
And suddenly, I get a funny feeling
that where I should have been the warmest,
I was... Something had gone terribly wrong...amidships, you know.
And the word, the neon sign "frostbite" went on in...
So I clasped my hands here, like this,
thereby putting myself into the racing position and went pssshht!
Right past the instructor.
And we get to the bottom, and I know it's happened, and I panic.
There were four mauve men there warming themselves.
My Italian is very bad. I said, "Cazzo gelato!" Frozen...
Anyway. So they caught on, they said "Put it in the snow."
I said, "Put it in the snow?!"
Put yours in the snow! Mine's cold enough.
So then my man arrived, he said, "Alcohol, put it in alcohol."
So they put me in this terrible old taxi and drove me
through the main street of Cortina, which is a very chic place, you know,
with these four horny-handed guides keeping circulation going.
I've heard of some uses for alcohol, but never that before!
David, can I finally ask you, what is the most extraordinary thing
that you've had to do in this extraordinary life you've had?
The thing when you look back, you think,
my word, that took some beating,
that was the daftest thing I've ever done.
Well, just the other day, something pretty spooky.
Lawrence Durrell, who wrote that marvellous book
My Family And Other Animals, he has a zoo in Jersey.
So he had a congra...
What is...when you get a whole lot of people together.
- Congregation. - Convention.
...of all the great wildlife preservationists in the world.
He had 600 of them there.
And the big thing of this congress
was to be the wedding of two gorillas.
There was a female gorilla in his zoo, and they brought from Basel
in Switzerland, this immense one that was going to be the husband.
And he asked Hjordis, my wife and I, to go and open the new gorilla cage
and asked me to be best man at the wedding of the two gorillas.
So I thought I'd go the whole way
and I put on the full Ascot, everything, grey top hat.
And I had a bouquet of bananas and corn.
Now, on this hill there, looking,
the new cage is here with the two gorillas,
separated because they were going to be let go afterwards.
Hjordis is waiting to pull the plug, opening the little plaque,
"Opened by Mr and Mrs D Niven," that thing.
And up here, there's 600 very important scientists.
And I'm hacking through some ghastly speech, and getting laughs,
I couldn't believe my eyes.
I wasn't trying to be funny, even. They were roaring.
I thought Hjordis was doing something funny.
I looked round, some ass had opened the gate,
and the two gorillas were at it right behind me.
Ohh, I'll get a...
SPEECH DROWNED BY APPLAUSE
I somehow think that...
- Can I? - Go on, carry on, please.
- Could I tell you one gorilla story? - You can.
It must be the end, because you wouldn't want me after this.
We won't follow this.
I don't think anybody will follow this.
- Shall I try? - Of course.
Well, a man came home in his little house in the row.
And he had one palm tree in his garden.
And as he walked into his house,
he looked up and there was a gorilla in the palm tree.
Now, this is Croydon or somewhere.
If there are palm trees in Croydon.
So he... "Christ!" he said, and the thing's up.
He ran into his house, looked through the window and it was still there.
He got the telephone directory, Yellow Pages, gorilla control.
So he found gorilla control.
And he said, "I've got a gorilla in my palm tree!"
They said, "Please, sir, relax, we'll get the gorilla. Don't panic.
"Give me the address, we'll be there." "Right."
A station wagon arrived, and out of it got a little man in a deerstalker.
With a tiny dog about this big,
and a large net and a revolver.
The man said, "Come on, quick, come in here!"
He said, "Sir, don't panic, we'll get rid of the gorilla."
"What are you going to do?"
He said, "You hold the revolver, I'll tell you what we'll do.
"I will go outside, climb the tree
"and I will shake the gorilla to the ground.
"The dog, which is highly trained,
"will then dash forward and bite the gorilla in the bleep." Aaah!
"This paralyses the gorilla.
"Whereupon I, whereupon I throw the net over the gorilla, tie it up,
"put it in the station wagon and take it to the zoo."
"What do I do? "Yes, I forgot about you.
"You hold the revolver.
"If anything awful happens and by mistake I shake myself to the ground,
"shoot the dog."
I'd better go now!
David, all I can say to you after that
is thank you very much for being my guest tonight.
I've really enjoyed it, thank you very much.
Thank you, Michael. You make it very easy. You're wonderful.
Marvellous. Till next week, bye-bye.
First transmitted in 1972, Michael Parkinson's special guest, David Niven, draws on stories from his past including his first introduction to ‘the fairer sex’, his time in the Army, his adventures as a jobbing actor and the itchy feet that led to him leaving Hollywood to live in France.