David Niven was born in London, England. He was the son of William Edward Graham Niven and the French/British Henrietta Julia Degacher who, born in Wales, was the daughter of army officer William Degacher (who changed his original name of Hitchcock to his mother's maiden name of Degacher in 1874) and Julia Caroline, the daughter of Lieutenant General James Webber Smith.
He was named David for his birth on St. David's Day. Although he often claimed to have been born in Kirriemuir, Angus, Scotland in 1909, it was only after his birth certificate was checked following his death that this was found to be incorrect.
His father was killed during the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915 and his mother remarried Sir Thomas Comyn-Platt. In his biography, NIV: The Authorized Biography of David Niven, Graham Lord suggests that Comyn-Platt had been conducting an affair with Niven's mother for some time prior to her husband's death, and that Sir Thomas may well have been Niven's biological father, a supposition not without some support from her children.
According to his autobiography, The Moon's a Balloon, David Niven arrived in Hollywood to try to break into the movies by first finding work as an extra. He was given lodgings with the Belzer family, one of whose daughters - Gretchen - was already a major Hollywood star, under her stage name of Loretta Young.
When he presented himself at the doors of Central Casting, he found out that he had to have a work permit, to allow him to reside and work in the U.S. Luckily for him, he was given the chance to do a screen test for director Edmund Goulding. Unfortunately, it was not long after this that he was paid a visit by the U.S. Immigration Service and told he had to apply for a Resident Alien Visa.
This meant that Niven had to leave U.S. soil in the meantime, and again, according to his autobiography, he left for Mexico - specifically Mexicali - where he worked as a "gun-man", cleaning and polishing the rifles of the visiting Americans who came there to hunt quail and various other game.
After a lengthy wait for his birth certificate to be sent out from England, he successfully applied - and received - his Resident Alien Visa from the American Consulate. He then returned to the U.S. and was accepted by Central Casting as "Anglo-Saxon Type No. 2008."
His first work as an extra was as a Mexican in a Western. This inauspicious start notwithstanding, he then found himself an agent - Bill Hawks. After this, he was then signed up for a non-speaking part in MGM's "Mutiny On The Bounty" (1935), starring Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian and Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh.
He then landed a longterm contract as a supporting player with independent film producer Samuel Goldwyn, which firmly established his career and enabled him to become a leading man in many films. Given his privileged English upbringing, Niven had no problems infiltrating what became known as the Hollywood Raj, a select group of British actors who had made Hollywood their home.
Other members of the group, included Boris Karloff, Stan Laurel, Basil Rathbone, Ronald Colman and their self appointed leader C. Aubrey Smith. One of his first major roles was in The Charge of the Light Brigade in 1936, in which he starred alongside one of his closest friends Errol Flynn. A year later he starred as Capt. Fritz von Tarlenheim in 1937's The Prisoner of Zenda with C Aubrey Smith and Ronald Colman.
However, not wanting to be typecast as a 'swashbuckler' as Flynn had been, Niven also made films in a light hearted vein such as the 1939 RKO comedy Bachelor Mother with Ginger Rogers, and Raffles, in which he played a gentleman thief.
He resumed his career after the war, with films such as A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) (as Phileas Fogg), The Guns Of Navarone (1961), and The Pink Panther (1963).
The same year as he hosted the show with Jack Lemmon and Bob Hope, Niven won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in Separate Tables (1958). Niven had a long and complex relationship with Samuel Goldwyn, who had first given him his start, but whom Niven believed had been treating him unfairly.
Despite their long business history, Niven and Goldwyn went through an eight year estrangement in which Niven was essentially blacklisted from the movie industry after demanding greater compensation for his work. After winning the Academy Award, Niven received a telephone call from Goldwyn with the invitation that he should come to his home.
Niven claimed that he was in Goldwyn's drawing room when he noticed a picture of him in uniform that he had sent to Goldwyn from England during World War II. He claimed that in happier times with Goldwyn, he had observed this same picture sitting on top of Goldwyn's piano. Now years later, the picture was still in the exact same spot. Niven claimed that as he was looking at the picture, Goldwyn's wife, Francis, approached him and said, "Sam never took it down."
David Niven had in fact been Ian Fleming's preference for the part of James Bond, however EON Productions chose Sean Connery for their series. In 1967, he starred with Deborah Kerr and Barbara Bouchet in the James Bond satire, Casino Royale. In a documentary included with the U.S. DVD of the 1967 release of Casino Royale, Charles K. Feldman states that Ian Fleming had written the book with David Niven in mind, and therefore sent a copy of the book to Niven.
David Niven is the only James Bond actor who is mentioned by name in the text of Fleming's James Bond novels. In On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Bond visits an exclusive ski resort in Switzerland where he is told that David Niven is a frequent visitor and in You Only Live Twice, David Niven is referred to as the only real gentleman in Hollywood.
Late in life, he gained critical acclaim for his memoirs of his boyhood and acting career, The Moon's a Balloon (1971) and Bring On the Empty Horses (1975). Although it has since come to light that despite Niven's frequent recounting of anecdotes about Hollywood in a manner that suggested that he had been personally involved at the time, in many cases he had not in fact been a witness to them and he was merely embroidering stories he had heard at third hand.
Perhaps one of Niven's finest moments came when he had to present the 46th Annual Oscars ceremony, and a naked man appeared behind him, running across the stage. Not to be outclassed or nonplussed even for a moment, Niven came back with the one liner "Isn't it fascinating to think, that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life, is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings!"