Joseph Cotten (1913-1994)

joseph cotten
Joseph Cotten
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Joseph Cotten was a versatile stage and movie actor with a relaxed, natural style, who first achieved fame on the Broadway stage and originated the role of C.K. Dexter Haven in the stage version of 'The Philadelphia Story'. He then appeared in a series of top quality classic movies during the 1940's, such as 'Citizen Kane' in 1941 and 'Gaslight' in 1944. In all he appeared in more than 60 movies over his 40 year career although the quality of his films deteriorated after the 1950's when he began to concentrate on television acting. He was a friend and colleague of Orson Welles and acted as Best Man at Welles's marriage to Rita Hayworth.


He was born Joseph Cheshire Cotten on May 15th, 1905 in Petersburg, Virginia, into a comfortable middle class home. He had two younger brothers, Whit and Sam. He became interested in the theater and acting whilst still at school and on graduation he studied in Washington D.C. at the Robert Hickman School of Speech and Expression, working part time as a salesman to fund his education. He was a tall athletic young man and he played professional football for a short time during this period.

During his early twenties he moved from Washington to New York and then to Miami, looking for acting work and continuing to work as a salesman to make ends meet. He became theater critic for the Miami Herald and for five years was a part time actor at the Miami Civic Theater. He moved to Boston in 1929 and appeared in a variety of productions at the Copley Theatre, expanding his knowledge and experience.

In 1930 he began work in New York as assistant stage manager, with additional acting roles and his reputation as a talented, dependable performer grew. In the same year he made his Broadway debut and he continued for the next few years to appear in Broadway productions such as 'Absent Father' in 1932 and 'Jezebel'.

He married for the first time during this period and to boost the family income he auditioned for and appeared in various radio shows in addition to his theater work. At one such audition he met a young actor who would profoundly affect his future career - Orson Welles.

Orson Welles

Welles was a hugely ambitious and precociously gifted young man and he and Cotten, who was older by 10 years, became firm friends. Welles directed Cotten in several plays in the nationwide Federal Theater project, including 'Horse Eats Hat' in 1936 and the following year Cotten became one of the founder members of Welles's Mercury Theatre company which became one of the most successful dramatic companies in New York.

Cotten starred in the Mercury productions of 'Julius Caesar' and 'Shoemaker's Holiday' in 1937 and 'Danton's Death' in 1938 and he made his movie debut in 'Too Much Johnson', also in 1938, a Welles-directed comedy short, which was never officially released. In 1939 he performed again on Broadway, with Katharine Hepburn, in the original stage version of 'The Philadelphia Story', starring as C.K.Dexter Haven, the role which went to Cary Grant in the 1941 film.

'Citizen Kane'

Welles had been given an unprecedented contract by RKO giving him full creative control of his future pictures. He brought his Mercury Players with him to Hollywood and his first venture was the brilliant 'Citizen Kane', a portrayal of the life of a press magnate whose idealism gradually descends into corruption and loneliness. Cotten was featured prominently in the role of Jedediah Leland, a drama critic and Kane's best friend. It was the start of of a period of great acting success for Cotten.

Welles's follow-up to 'Kane' in 1942 was 'The Magnificent Ambersons' in which Cotten gave a moving performance as Eugene Morgan and established his screen image as a romantic lead. He showed his versatility the following year playing a suspected killer in Alfred Hitchcock's psychological thriller, 'Shadow of a Doubt' and then returned to romance as Deanna Durbin's love interest in 'Hers to Hold' in 1943 and with Claudette Colbert in 'Since You Went Away' and with Ginger Rogers in 'I'll Be Seeing You', both in 1944.

The 1940's was a golden decade for Cotten and he continued in a classic romantic western, 'Duel in the Sun', in 1946, co-starring Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck, and a light comedy in 1947, 'The Farmer's Daughter', for which Loretta Young won a Best Actress Academy Award. . He gave an outstanding performance, again opposite Jennifer Jones in 'Portrait of Jennie' in 1948, for which he received the Best Actor award from the Venice Film Festival. The following year he co-starred with Orson Welles again and gave another masterclass in restrained, sensitive acting in the thriller, 'The Third Man'.

Movie Career Decline

After the heights of 'The Third Man', the remainder of Cotten's movie career saw a gradual decline. Although he played leading man roles they were in lesser films with smaller budgets and with generally poor scripts. 1949 saw him in two very disappointing movies. 'Beyond the Forest' has been called Bette Davis's worst movie and 'Under Capricorn' was a rare flop for Alfred Hitchcock. Cotten continued in a string of lower profile and generally disappointing roles in poorly received movies such as 'Half Angel' and 'Peking Express' in 1951, 'The Killer Is Loose' in 1955 and 'The Bottom of the Bottle' in 1956. An exception to the generally poor quality was 'Niagara' in 1953 an excellent thriller directed by Henry Hathaway and co-starring a young Marilyn Monroe.

Later Career

Cotten's flagging movie career was counterbalanced by his television career which began to flourish from the mid 1950's. He appeared often in drama series such as 'Celebrity Playhouse', 'The Ford Television Theater', 'General Electric Theater', and 'Schlitz Playhouse of Stars' and continued to be a familiar face on the small screen during the 1960's in popular shows such as 'Dr Kildare', 'Wagon Train' and 'Ironside'. He also made occasional stage appearances in the 1950's, beginning in 1953 in the original Broadway production of 'Sabrina Fair' as Linus Larrabee Jr.

In 1964 Cotten appeared with Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, and Agnes Moorehead in 'Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte' a horror movie, and for the remainder of his career he made one or two movies a year, many in European productions and many in fairly uninspired, 'B' movies. Honorable exceptions were the western 'Brighty of the Grand Canyon' in 1967, the war film 'Tora! Tora! Tora!' in 1970 and the 1977 disaster movie 'Airport '77'.


Cotten was a tall, good-looking man with a strong, clear voice and he easily played romantic leads at the start of his movie career, although he was never a film star heartthrob in the sense of Cary Grant or James Stewart.

He married twice, firstly to Lenore La Mont, a classical pianist who died of leukemia in 1960. In, his autobiography Cotten admits to several affairs with fellow actresses during the marriage. Later in 1960 he married Patricia Medina, a beautiful British film actress. The marriage was happy and fulfilling and ended with his death.

Joseph Cotten had a serious stroke and a laryngectomy in the early 1980's and was forced to retire from acting. He died on February 6, 1994 from pneumonia arising from throat cancer. He is is buried at Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia.

Joseph Cotten Academy Awards

No Nominations:

Joseph Cotten Filmography

Seeing the World: Part One - A Visit to New York, N.Y. (short)
Too Much Johnson (short)
Citizen Kane
Journey Into Fear
Shadow of a Doubt
Hers to Hold
Since You Went Away
I'll Be Seeing You
Love Letters
Portrait of Jennie
The Third Man
Under Capricorn
Beyond the Forest
September Affair
Two Flags West
Walk Softly, Stranger
Half Angel
Peking Express
The Man with a Cloak
Othello (uncredited)
The Wild Heart
Untamed Frontier
The Steel Trap
Egypt by Three
A Blueprint for Murder
Vom Himmel gefallen
Bedevilled (uncredited)
Beyond the River
The Killer Is Loose
The Halliday Brand
Touch of Evil (uncredited)
From the Earth to the Moon