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Why did David Niven avoid acting on the stage?

Blog | By Stanley Price | Jun 14, 2019

David Niven holds the record for the shortest performance ever to win the Oscar for best actor. It was in 1958, and he was on screen for only 25 minutes in the film adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables. Niven played the bogus Major Pollock, living in a residential seaside hotel and trying to prevent his stuffy co-residents from seeing the local newspaper. It carried the news that he had just been charged with harassing young women in a local cinema. It was a deeply moving performance, all the more surprising as Niven, the most popular British actor in Hollywood, was best known for playing smooth comedy parts.

Shortly after winning his Oscar, Niven was invited to lunch in the penthouse dining room of the Time-Life Building. This was a monthly event held so that Henry Luce, the proprietor of the world’s largest magazine empire, and the senior editors of Life could meet a distinguished guest, someone who was currently in the news. It was the duty of the relevant department to issue the invitation and send a reporter to collect and escort the guest to lunch. I had recently become a reporter in the Entertainment Department, and its editor probably thought that, as the token Englishman, I would get on well with Niven. I did a little homework and went off to collect him from the Waldorf.

Because we are so used to seeing them on a big screen, film actors seem surprisingly small in the flesh. Niven was no exception, but he did stand very straight. This, along with his neat moustache and immaculate turn-out, clearly spelled out his earlier background. He had been at Sandhurst, commissioned in the Rifle Corps and had a distinguished war record. His immediate charm and friendliness felt genuine and not a celebrity PR act. In the taxi, however, he admitted to mild stage fright about meeting Henry Luce. What was he like? I couldn’t help Niven there. I had once travelled alone with Luce up thirty floors in a lift but he had not uttered even a ‘Hi’. He was known as a serious man and, reputedly, not many people made him laugh. I didn’t tell Niven that, but he decided he needed a stiff drink before lunch.

He stopped the taxi at the 21, one of Manhattan’s smartest restaurants and bars. Inside, he was treated like royalty. Our drinks appeared in a flash. The barman was a very old friend. When Niven first came to New York, he had worked briefly as a whisky salesman, and the 21 had been among his clients. Fortunately, we had a little time on our hands and had a chance to talk. Niven turned out to be a marvellous raconteur. When I asked him if he had ever acted on stage, he positively lit up. I had obviously pressed the right button. Yes, he had even acted on Broadway – but only once. He had played Gloria Swanson’s lover in an ill-fated French comedy. Unfortunately, she had designed her own costumes and on the opening night, in the first scene, he embraced her too energetically. Somewhere in the structure of her off-the-shoulder dress, a whalebone twanged, came loose and flew up his nostril. Niven froze and forgot his lines. He demonstrated all this brilliantly, ending with a cocktail stick up his nostril. He quoted a line from Walter Kerr’s review in the Herald Tribune: ‘Like the play, Miss Swanson’s clothes fell apart in the first act.’ Niven never acted on stage again. Miss Swanson did, but gave up designing clothes.

We just made it to the Time-Life dining room, but before we went in he said, ‘If I dry with Mr Luce, ask me that question about the theatre.’ Inside, I was meant to sit at the end of the table but Niven insisted I sat opposite him. The silence Niven dreaded didn’t come until the dessert. Niven shot me a dramatic glance. I cleared my throat: ‘Before making films, did you ever act in the theatre?’ ‘I wish you hadn’t asked me that question,’ he said, giving me a disarming smile. ‘Yes. I even acted on Broadway – but only once,’ and he was off. It was a word-perfect performance. This time it was the end of a teaspoon instead of a cocktail stick he put up his nostril. And Luce was laughing.

When Niven was leaving, he took my arm and said quietly, ‘You gave that cue beautifully.’ He made me feel I had just won an Oscar for best supporting actor. I never saw Niven again, except on screen. He made another dozen or so successful films but never won another award. Between films he wrote a memoir, The Moon's Balloon, that became a number one bestseller.