David Niven

  1. Douglas Walton, The Bride of Frankenstein, 1934.     So much for star-spotting. Niven was tested and refused for poet Percy Bysshe Shelley at the start of the long-awaited sequel. Then it took him 40 years before making a horror film, as The Old Dracula (the US title) in Vampira, 1974.
  2. Louis Hayward, The Flame Within, 1935.     Niven’s first Hollywood chance was testing for Edmund Goulding in a dinner-suit. “Pretty bad,” said the director, “apart from the natural bit when you told the limerick.  Except you were all  frozen up.  You won’t get the part this time. But I think you can make it and I’m going to help you.”
  3. Paul Cavanaugh, Goin’ To Town, 1935.     Mae West’s director, Al Hall, got hold of  his “frozen” test and summoned Niven to Her Presence. If  Mae liked him without a vest, Paramount was ready with a seven-year contract.  But minus papers – and agent – he had to split in order to return to America legally with resident alien visa and work permit. And he started as an extra.
  4. William Boyd, Hop-A-Long Cassidy, 1935.     Central Casting’s Anglo-Saxon Type 2008 hardly seemed appropriate when producer Harry “Pop” Sherman popped the question. “But I appeared in 27 Westerns without speaking a line.  All we extras would stand in line to be sprayed different  colours – red,  brown,  yellow – depending what nationalities we were supposed to be.  Because I could ride a horse – rather forward in a ‘Sandhurst seat’ – and looked faintly sinister, they usually cast me as a Mexican.”
  5. Fred MacMurray, The Golden Lily, 1935.     Director-pal Edmund Goulding told Niven to quit extra work, found him an agent, Bill Hawks, and made more tests.  “Three  men did the same scene on the same day with Claudette Colbert – on a park bench complete with popcorn and pigeons.  The other two [MacMurray, Ray Milland] got contracts at Paramount but nothing happened to me.”  Goulding took him to MGM where production chief Irving Thalberg said at a dinner party that he would sign up Niven. Among the guests, producer Samuel Goldwyn pounced first and Louella  Parsons reported GOLDWYN SIGNS UNKNOWN. For seven years.
  6. Frank Lawton, David Copperfield, 1935.      Tested to take over David The Man David from the Freddie Bartholomew’s Boy David.
  7. Alan Marshal, The Garden of Allah, 1936.     Passing on both Brits,  Niven and Ray Milland, showed (said Dietrich biographer Steven Bach), that producer David Selznick’s “star-making instincts were not infallible.”
  8. Patric Knowles, The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1937.     Before Captain  Blood made Errol Flynn a star, Warners mused about Cagney as Robin and Niven as Will Scartlet. Niven  was on vacation in  Britain, , closer to the real Sherwood than to Hollywood’s.
  9. George Brent, The Old Maid, 1939.      After directing him to Dawn Patrol glory, 1938, Edmund Goulding continued plugging his find – to play Clem, the man that  sisters Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins fall for. “That man must be important both in name, performance and appearance… someone to remember. That’s why my  first impulse was to suggest David Niven.” After musing on a Niven/George Brent type, Hal Wallis wanted Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis wanted Alan Marshall. Bogie was fired after a week and Goulding continued to also assist Brent’s rise
  10. Laurence Olivier, Rebecca,  1939.

  11. Dana Andrews, The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946.
  12. Cary  Grant, The Bishop’s Wife,  1947.  Producer Samuel Goldwyn suddenly sacked the director, had Oscar-winner Robert Sherwood’s script rewritten and ordered his guys to swop roles.  Less than willing, Cary Grant became the (much admired) angel assisting Niven’s dour bishop. Very dour, it was his first film after the tragic, accidental death of his wife.
  13. Donald Cook, Our Very Own, 1949.  In June, the Hollywood Reporter announced Niven but it was the lessser known Cook who played the father of three daughters – when one of them, Ann Blyth, found out she was adopted. And made much more of a fuss about it than I did when I discovered the same.   Niven later played Cook’s Broadway role in Otto Preminger’s film of The Moon Is Blue, 1952.
  14. David Farrar, Night Without Stars, 1951.     Farrar was terrified of the love scenes with Nadia Gray, reported UK producer Hugh Stewart. “Quite frankly, I didn’t want him – I wanted Niven.” But the Rank Organisation said: “Niven is finished!”
  15. Humphrey Bogart, The African Queen, 1951.    When first suggested for Bette Davis in 1938, although she wanted John Mills – better suited to how John Huston told Bogart to play Charlie Allnut: “The hero is a low life.” Indeed, one RKO reader of potent projects famously called the CS Forrester book a “distasteful and not a little disgusting” taleof a “physically unattractive” couple.
  16. Nigel Patrick, The Sound  Barrier, 1952.     While making Appointment  With Venus, Niven and Kenneth More were asked by director David Lean to take on the small role of a test pilot  dying in the attempt to break  the sound barrier. Niven wasn’t interested. “Dead before the last reel, old bird!  Not likely! I’m too old a bird for that.  I like to be in at the finish.”
  17. Clark Gable,  Soldier of Fortune, 1954.   Niven (and Cameron Mitchell) were first  announced for the kind of Macao  actioner that Gable (and the critics) agreed he was far too old fo .  But, hell, it as right up his right-wing, anti-Commie alley.  Like a red rag to a bull.
  18. Dennis Price, Oh… Rosalinda!!, 1955.      When Noel Coward proved impossible as the English colonel, UK director Michael Powell ran to his “generous, prudent, kind” shining star from A Matter of Life and Death and The Elusive Pimpernel. But Niven  was unavailable.
  19. Kenneth More, The  Admirable Chrichton, 1957.      Niven was welcomed home after war service with a cable from Sam  Goldwyn:  THINK CAN GET YOU ADMIRAL CHRICHTON [sic] WITH PARAMOUNT.
  20. James Mason, A Touch of Larceny, 1959.   Paramount wanted Niv. UK producer Ivan Foxwell kept the faith with Mason. And he was perfect – even suggesting the final title for director Guy Hamilton’s suave 008th film that surely was the reason he was invited into the elite 007 coven for Goldfinger in 1964. Followed, of course, by Diamonds Are Forever, Live And Let Die, The Man With The Golden Gun during 1970-1974. Meanwhile, Niven joined Hamilton’s 009th venture, The Best of Enemies, 1961. Once Mason was in Larceny, a poor UK actor called John Dearth was out… for looking too much like Mason!

  21. Ronald Howard,  Babette s’enva-t-enguerre/Babette GoesTo War,France, 1959.     French film historian Philippe Durant said Niven “had the good taste to refuse the film.” So the (empty) British officer went to Leslie Howard’s son. The planet was more interested in his co-star. Brigitte Bardot.   Unfortunately, with all her clothes on!
  22. Jerry Lewis, Visit To A Small Planet, 1960.    According to  Lewis, it was Gore Vidal’s idea to cast him.  According to the  author of the play, “It was Vidal’s idea to cast David Niven and Paramount agreed. Then… the dread Jerry Lewis…, somehow got the part which he played as a nine-year-old from outer space”!
  23. Rod Taylor, The Time Machine, 1959. To begin with, producer-director George Pal wanted a middle-aged Brit as his hero H George Wells (!) – James Mason, David Niven or Paul Scofield – before going younger with Taylor. Pal wanted Rod again for the  promised sequel, Return of the Time Traveller, not to mention Country of the Blind – they never happened. Plus The 7 Faces of Dr Lao and Power, which Taylor never fancied.
  24. James Mason, Lolita, 1960.
  25. Anthony Quayle, Lawrence of Arabia, 1961.
  26. John Lund, If A Man Answers, 1961.      Niven, Nancy Kwan and Claudette Colbert suddenly became Lund, Sandra Dee and… well, it Micheline Presle as Lund’s wife delivering The Line: “If you want a perfect marriage,  treat your husband like a dog… Husbands often leave home, pets never. There must be a reason.”
  27. Roger Moore, The Saint, TV, 1962-1969.   Having seen other attempts to tele-serialise his hero, Leslie Charteris played hard to get until producer Lew Grade promised a hefty £30,000 budget per episode. But minus the author’s dream of Niven as Templar.  Too old, said Grade. Niven was 53, Moore (in a rug and lifts) was the  reverse – 35. Grade preferred Patrick McGoohan, 34, who rejected being such a womaniser (he said the same about 007). and settled for Moore is less. (At 35). The most famous movie-Saint, George Sanders, started his five movies at 33. The series  was sold to 63 countries and raked in a profit in excess of £350m.
  28. James Mason, Lolita, 1962.   From Saint to….   Stanley Kubrick’s first choice for the paedophile Humbert Humbert had a Broadway date. Laurence Olivierwas warned off replacing Mason by his agent (who was also Kubrick’s agent – Stanwas furious!). Peter Ustinov was considered after his Oscar for Stan’s Spartacus.  Niven said yes – then quickly, no, fearing the reaction of the sponsors of his Four Star Playhouse TV show.
  29. Lloyd Nolan, Circus World, 1963.     Originally happy as Cap Carson, Niven quit after the script as churned into “a typical John Wayne film.” That is to say, Niven’s rôle kept shrinking as Duke’s grew taller.
  30. Sean Connery, Thunderball, 1965.

  31. Peter Sellers, Woman  Times Seven, 1967.      Or,  Shirley MacLaine times seven. Each Shirl’ with a different guy:  Alan Arkin, Lex Barker, Rossano Brazzi,  Michael Caine, Vittorio Gassman, Sellers, Philippe Noiret, etc. Even  Marlon Brando  in a tiny cameo sans credit.
  32. Patrick McGoohan, Ice Station Zebra, 1967.   Producer Martin Ransohoff wanted (at least) two stars from the previous Alistair MacLean thriller, The Guns of Navarone. And he got Gregory Peck for the submarine commander and David Niven as the UK spy. For about five minutes. Maybe six. Well, however long it took to suss out the flat scenario. Enter: the flat Rock Hudson… and McGoohan, which explains why he was not (much) in the13th Prisoner episode, Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling, on December 22, 1967.
  33. Christopher Plummer, The Return of the Pink Panther, 1975.      Having one Panther stolen from under him was enough… He only returned for two more Panthers, but only after delivering  the eulogy at Sellers’ funeral. By now, Niven was so ill his dialogue was voiced by Canadian impersonater Rich Little.
  34. Edward Fox, Soldaat van Oranje (Soldier of Orange), Holland-Belgium, 1977. Dutch director Paul Verhoeven  needed a few Brits for his true WWII tale. Niven and Alec Guinness stepped away. They could have written this 1997 comment by the New York Times critic Janet Maslin. . (Maybe fhey did!).   “The film’s two main English characters, an officer (Edward Fox) and his trampy, ridiculous assistant (Susan Penhaligon), are so weirdly caricatured that they may make a great comic impression on American viewers.”
  35. Edward Fox, Force Ten From Navarone, 1978.    Not quite the “natural successor” to Guns.  Nor to Niven.
  36. Leonard Rossiter, Le Petomane, 1978.    Niven’s agent warnedhim off playing Jospeh Pujol (1857-1945), theFrench flatulistappearing before “crowned deaths of Europe” – by making a wholenew art form out of… farting.Peter Sellers’ agent agreed (even though the script was by Tony Hancock’sbrilliant writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson) and Ron Moody fled – not good for his image. (What image?).
  37. John Gielgud, Arthur, 1980.       Brand new auteur Steve Gordon knew exactly who was perfect. Dudley More as the titular rich drunk man-child and Hobson, his butler, played by Gielgud, Guinness or David Niven. Gordon got his way, made a big hit, but never a second film – he died at 44 in 1982. Sir John won an Oscar. His real name was… Arthur.
  38. Michael Gough, Batman, 1988.
  39. Dean Martin, What a Way to Go!, 1964.  A certain Louisa May Foster takes her shrink through her five late husbands – every one a laugh. (If only). Prepared for Marilyn Monroe before her tragic death, I Love Louisawas given to Elizabeth Taylor with Marilyn’s Marlon Brando. Or Richard Burton (of course), Tony Curtis, Brad Dexter, Kirk Douglas, Cary Grant, Rex Harrison, Rock Hudson, Burt Lancaster, Steve McQueen, Marcello Mastroianni, David Niven. Even Brad Dexter, the Magnificent Seventh that everyone forgets. Finally, Shirley MacLaine wed Robert Mitchum, Paul Newman, Dick Van Dyke… but not Frank Sinatra who wanted   $500,000 or no show.  Oh and Dean Martin as a department store mogul called Lennie Crawley, no less. This is where I usually say: And you can never go wrong with a Crawley. Not this (terrible) time!  Steve McQueen and Charlton Heston were up for Hubby #2, Paul Newman’s  American in Paris artist. Sounded like a reprise for Gene Kelly. Except he was Hubby #4, described as a song and dance man about to break into Hollywood – what at age 51! Yes, the movie was that bad.  “An abomination,” said The New Leader critic John Simon.







 Birth year: 1909Death year: 1983Other name: Casting Calls:  39