The British movie historian David Shipman once quipped that David Niven "held together more dud pictures than any other actor of his standing."
Indeed, the career of David Niven, who died yesterday at the age of 73, seems a distinctive triumph of urbane charm and professional durability. An enjoyable and polished film star of the second magnitude, Niven was highly valued as a refining, finishing class attraction in astutely packaged entertainments such as "The Guns of Navarone" and "The Pink Panther."
Looking over the Niven backlog, one can't help but be impressed by his career. He served a long Hollywood apprenticeship in the 1930s before winning the kind of light comic roles, in "Bachelor Mother" and "Raffles," that seemed particularly suited to his talents. Logic suggests that when Samuel Goldwyn signed Niven to his first contract in 1935, he intended to groom the aspiring young Scot, a Sandhurst graduate and former soldier descended from two generations of professional soldiers, as a successor to Ronald Colman, Goldwyn's principal box-office asset.
However, Goldwyn loaned Niven out or cast him indifferently more often than not, and Niven enjoyed his best early showcases in Errol Flynn vehicles at Warner Bros., "The Charge of the Light Brigade" and "The Dawn Patrol." Those assignments also inspired a fast friendship with Flynn, and the two young actors shared a house and countless good times together in the '30s, an experience fondly recalled by Niven in his two best-selling memoirs, "The Moon's a Balloon" and "Bring On the Empty Horses."
World War II service with Britain disrupted Niven's career just as he was emerging as a leading man. Despite attractive roles in Carol Reed's "The Way Ahead" during the war and Michael Powell's "Stairway to Heaven" immediately after the war, he languished again in the postwar period when he returned to Hollywood to resume work under Goldwyn's whimsical mismanagement. By the early '50s Niven found himself in the unenviable position of starring in two expensive costume flops, "Bonnie Prince Charlie" and "The Elusive Pimpernel," released more or less simultaneously.
Discouraging as this skid had to be as Niven entered his forties, he hung on gamely, making a success of his partnership with Dick Powell, Charles Boyer and Ida Lupino in the TV anthology "Four Star Playhouse" and then sailing with debonair aplomb through the coy boobytraps of "The Moon Is Blue," as exasperating a sensation 30 years ago as "Flashdance" is today.
Niven's genial professionalism was at last rewarded by a good stretch that extended from his casting as Phileas Fogg in Mike Todd's "Around the World in 80 Days," the Oscar-winning movie of 1956, through his creation of the role of Sir Charles Litton, alias The Phantom, in Blake Edwards' "The Pink Panther," a highlight of 1964. There were several high spots in between: "Separate Tables" with Deborah Kerr, which brought Niven the 1958 Academy Award for his portrayal of the bogus major disgraced by a public scandal; a costarring assignment as the crisp British representative in the international commando team that sabotaged "The Guns of Navarone"; and expert work as a mature romantic comedy lead in "Ask Any Girl" opposite Shirley MacLaine and "Please Don't Eat the Daisies" opposite Doris Day.
Niven was denied the chance at another major dramatic role when MGM scuttled Fred Zinnemann's movie version of "Man's Fate" a week before it was scheduled to begin. His credits through the late '60s and the '70s range from such obscure embarrassments as "The Statue" and "The Extraordinary Seaman" through modest hits such as "Murder by Death" and "Death on the Nile."
But by the time he reached his sixties, Niven had achieved a secure niche as an elegant elder statesman, soon augmented by television appearances that displayed his charm as a raconteur and by the publication of his books, which displayed an equally light and satisfying touch with anecdotal prose.
That touch is evident in "Bring On the Empty Horses" as Niven recalls the savor of life in Hollywood when he and Errol Flynn were roomies and cronies: "Christmas in Hollywood was like something from another planet . . . Everyone at the studio expected presents, from the night watchman to the chief of police, and from the head of the studio to the lowliest secretary, but the biggest outlay was in the realm of personal gifts to friends and business acquaintances. One was constantly getting caught short. I once gave Miriam Hopkins half a dozen handkerchiefs, and she gave me a Studebaker. All in all, it was a difficult and expensive time.
"Errol and I decided that the whole Peace and Goodwill Department was getting completely out of hand. So we decided to buy no personal or business gifts at all. Instead, we invested in some fancy wrapping paper, yards of multicolored ribbons and several dozen greeting cards. We then sat back at North Linden Drive and waited for the deluge. As the presents poured in, it was a simple matter to rewrap them, add something personal on a card and dispatch them elsewhere . . . All went well till someone sent us a case of champagne . . . Our rhythm faltered, and the operation lacked synchronization, with the embarrassing result that Walter Wanger received a beautiful black silk evening wallet on which, in gold lettering, was inscribed 'To D.N. from W.W.' "
Sadly, Niven will make his last screen appearance in a film scheduled for release next week, "The Curse of the Pink Panther," in which he recreates the role of Sir Charles. In an interview during the filming, he chatted about his career in terms of humorously modest contentment that reflected the kind of pleasure he imprinted on the screen: "My whole approach to comedy is that nothing is funny unless it is basically possible . . . I play my parts in comedies pretty straight. If you think you're being funny, the audience won't. You have to play against a situation. But this isn't work, it's fun.
"I hear actors say, 'I have to go to work tomorrow.' Nonsense. Work is eight hours in a coal mine or a government office. Getting up in the morning and putting on a funny moustache and dressing up and showing off in front of grown-ups--that's play, for which we're beautifully overpaid. I've always felt that way. After all, how many people in the world are doing things that they like to do?"