He was born in West Hampstead, London, of Scottish and Dutch ancestry, as Derek Jules Gaspard Ulric Niven van den Bogaerde.
His father was Art Editor of The Times and his mother had been an actress. He spent his early teenage years in Bishopbriggs, near Glasgow, living with an uncle and aunt. Glasgow shaped Bogarde, and though he hated his time there, he latter admitted, in his first volume of autobiography, A Postilion Struck by Lightning:
- "The three years in Scotland were, without doubt, the most important years of my early life. I could not, I know now, have done without them. My parents, intent on giving me a solid, tough scholastic education to prepare me for my Adult Life, had no possible conception that the education I would receive there would far outweigh anything a simple school could have provided."
He studied at the Chelsea College of Art and Design, and appeared on the stage in 1939 under the name "Derek Bogaerde".
He served as an army officer, mainly in intelligence, during World War II, and claimed to have been present at the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, leaving him with a deep hostility towards Germans.
After the war his agent renamed him "Dirk Bogarde". He was contracted to the Rank Organisation, and was soon starring in popular, mainly light-hearrted films such as Doctor in the House and its sequels. He became known as "The Matinee Idol of the Odeon".
In 1961 his career took a different turn when he starred in Victim, one of the first films to deal with the question of homosexuality, which has been credited with helping prepare the way for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967. Victim was followed by challenging roles in films such as Death in Venice and The Servant.
From 1977 onwards he started a second career as a writer, producing several novels and volumes of autobiography.
Dirk Bogarde is generally considered to have been gay, although he denied it during his lifetime (gay sex was against the law for much of his acting career). He never married, unlike several gay Hollywood actors who undertook marriages of convenience. For many years he shared his homes, in Amersham and later in France, with Anthony Forwood, his friend, manager, and presumed lover.
He received a knighthood in 1992 for services to acting.
- Not to be confused with the 1970s sitcom based loosely on the same books, starring Barry Evans