Actors Who Served: David Niven

Pop culture watchers may recall David Niven as an Oscar-winning actor famous for such movies as “Around the World in 80 Days” and “The Pink Panther.” History should also remember him for his service with the military in his native England.

The son of a military man, James David Graham Niven’s military career began with his admittance to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. Niven later was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Highland Light Infantry. He was discharged in 1935 and, with little for a military man to do after World War I, went to Hollywood to work as an extra where he caught the attention of producer Samuel Goldwyn.

Goldwyn signed him to a contract with MGM and his career began to take off. It wasn’t long before Niven was being cast in leading roles. However, he left show business temporarily to rejoin the army when Britain declared war on Germany in 1939. The British Embassy advised British actors to stay in Hollywood, and he was the only one to ignore that advice and return home.

Niven was re-commissioned with a motor training battalion as a lieutenant in the Rifle Brigade, then transferred to the Commandos. As with many actors who served, Niven worked with the Army Film Unit during the war. He acted in two movies to encourage support for the British war effort, "The First of the Few" (also known as "Spitfire") and "The Way Ahead."

Although he was sent to France several days after D-Day, Niven served in the “Phantom Signals Unit” in the Invasion of Normandy. His unit located enemies and kept commanders informed of their locations.

Despite his heroics, Niven did not like to speak about his time in the war. In his book "The Moon’s a Balloon, he did share a few tidbits, such as when Churchill told him, “young man, you did a fine thing to give up your film career to fight for your country. Mark you, had you not done so, it would have been despicable.”

Niven was with the British Army for more than six years, but was still considered a very popular actor upon his return to civilian life. In 1945, Niven was ranked at number two in a British film stars popularity poll. He was at the bottom of MGM’s list after the war and was loaned out to other studios, which ended up being very beneficial to his career.

By the end of the war, Niven had achieved the rank of lieutenant-colonel. For his work in setting up the BBC Allied Expeditionary Forces Programme, which provided news and entertainment to the troops, Eisenhower presented him with the Legion of Merit.


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