|Volume 3, Number 2 Spring-Summer,
Notable People with ALS - David NivenBy Nathaniel Schiffman and Melissa Schiffman
(Excerpted from ALS: Diagnosis & Management for the Clinician, edited by Jerry Belsh, M.D. and Philip Schiffman, M.D., with permission of Futura Publishing Company)
James David Graham Niven was born on March 1, 1910 in London and he would pass through an assortment of other occupations before he at last found himself in Hollywood. After graduation from the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, Niven served as a lieutenant in the British Army in Malta and England, and acquired a taste for the United States through the invitation of Woolworth heiress, Barbara Hutton. The following year he seized an opportunity to leave the army. As Niven relates in his memoirs, the resignation was sparked by a lengthy lecture on machine guns which was interfering with his dinner plans. During the question period at the end of the speech, Niven felt compelled to ask the major general, "Could you tell me the time, sir? I have to catch a train."
Niven relocated to New York, where he began an unsuccessful career in whiskey sales. After subsequent detours to Bermuda and Cuba, he finally arrived in Hollywood in the summer of 1934. He spent several months acting as an extra, mostly in westerns, and working his way into local social life. Before long, Samuel Goldwyn signed him for a seven-year contract.
Niven clearly loved his new career. He later said, "It really is amazing. Can you imagine being wonderfully overpaid for dressing up and playing games? It's like being Peter Pan". Niven's first speaking role was the line "Goodbye, my dear" in Without Regrets (1934). Other early films, including Thank You, Jeeves (1936), and Dodsworth (1936) established his screen persona as a suave Englishman. He met Errol Flynn during the filming of the Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), and they set up a bachelor pad together. Other movies of this period included The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), The Dawn Patrol (1938), and Wuthering Heights (1939).
Niven was in Hollywood playing a high-society jewel thief in Raffles when England entered World War II. Niven returned to England and served another six years with the British Army. He advanced to the rank of lieutenant colonel and was awarded the United States Legion of Merit. Also during the war, Niven appeared in two British war films and a number of radio shows for the BBC.
Niven continued making movies--as many as he could, and without regard to their value. As biographer Sheridan Morley notes, "Niven was a working actor whose only real plan, intention, or ambition was to stay in work as regularly as possible". Among the better of his later films were the lavish Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) and Separate Tables (1958), for which he won an Oscar.
At this time in his career, Niven branched out from film to other media. He joined Dick Powell and Charles Boyer in a television production company known as "Four Star Playhouse," although they never convinced a fourth star to join. Niven took to the stage with The Moon is Blue in San Francisco, and did 45 performances of Nina on Broadway in 1951.
Niven's friend John Mortimer said, "I don't think his acting ever quite achieved the brilliance or the polish of his dinner-party conversations". Niven's skill for storytelling shines through in his popular and acclaimed novels and memoirs. The autobiographical The Moon's a Balloon (1971) became a best seller. Niven went on to write Bring on the Empty Horses (1975) and Go Slowly, Come Back Quickly (1981).
By 1980, Niven began to notice changes in his speech and physical ability. While filming The Sea Wolves his "arm and leg muscles would occasionally begin to ache unexpectedly, walking or swimming became suddenly exhausting, and his voice late at night sometimes began to develop a faint slur". Niven attributed this to age and the strain of making a movie. His public first began to worry during an interview for the BBC in October 1981. Many viewers assumed from Niven's garbled speech that he was drunk, and a nurse warned that he may have suffered a mild stroke. Doctors in Europe believed the symptoms were the results of a strained nerve from a war injury. In February, 1982, he submitted to friends' urgings and consulted with doctors at the Mayo Clinic. Here he learned that he had ALS.
Niven's first reaction was that he "simply intended to defeat the ridiculous disease". He went to daily physical therapy and proceeded with his life. He continued to write his next novel, and filmed The Curse of the Pink Panther and The Trail of the Pink Panther. Niven appeared "cadaverous" in these films, and his voice had to be dubbed in by mimic Rich Little, a fact that Niven later learned through a gossip column.
In December 1982, David Niven put out a short press release saying that he had a muscular disorder. The disease became hard for Niven to bear. Jacob Javits, who also suffered from ALS, recalled of Niven, "I had tried hard to buck him up, but he just could not stand what to him was the disgrace of his infirmities". Describing the illness, Niven's wife Hjordis said:
"For a man like David who so loved to swim and walk and ski and sail and talk, gradually to find all those pleasures denied him was unbearable. The frustration of trying to say or write something and then finding that he just couldn't communicate, together with the wasting of the body, made it the most cruel illness."
In February 1983, Niven using a false name to avoid publicity, was hospitalized ten days for treatment. An article in Time magazine reported that the stay was "ostensibly for treatment of a digestive problem". Afterwards, Niven returned to his chalet at Chateau d'Oex in Switzerland, where his condition continued to decline. He refused to return to the hospital, and his family supported his decision. Niven died on July 29, 1983 at the age of 73.