Audrey (some sources indicate "Audra") Mary Totter was born and raised in Joliet, Illinois. Her parents were John (born Yugoslavia) and Ida Mae Totter. Her father was of Austro-Slovenian descent and her mother was Swedish American.
She began her acting career in radio in the late 1930s, and, following success in Chicago and New York, was signed to a seven-year film contract with MGM. She made her film debut in Main Street After Dark (1945) and established herself as a popular female lead in the 1940s. Although she appeared in various film genres, she became most widely known to movie audiences in film noirproductions.
Among her successes were:
- The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) with John Garfield and Lana Turner
- Lady in the Lake (1947) with Robert Montgomery and Jayne Meadows
- The Unsuspected (1947 for Warner Bros.) with Claude Rains
- High Wall (1947) with Robert Taylor
- The Saxon Charm (1948) with Montgomery and Susan Hayward
- Alias Nick Beal (1949) with Ray Milland
- The Set-Up (1949) with Robert Ryan
- Any Number Can Play (1949) with Clark Gable and Alexis Smith
- Tension (1950) with Richard Basehart.
By the early 1950s, the tough-talking "dames" she was best known for portraying were no longer fashionable, and as MGM began to work towards creating more family-themed films, Totter was released from her contract. She reportedly was dissatisfied with her MGM career and agreed to appear in Any Number Can Play only after Gable intervened. She worked for Columbia Pictures and 20th Century Fox, for example, FBI Girl (1951), but the quality of her films dropped, and by the end of the 1950s, her career was in decline.
In 1954, she appeared in the pilot episode of the later 1957-1958 detective series, Meet McGraw with Frank Lovejoy. She appeared with Joseph Cotten and William Hopper in the 1957 episode "The Case of the Jealous Bomber" of NBC's anthology series, The Joseph Cotten Show. In 1957, she was cast as a woman doctor, Louise Kendall, in the episode "Strange Quarantine" of the NBC western series, The Californians.
In 1958, she played boarding house owner Beth Purcell in another NBC western series, Cimarron City. The episodes were supposed to have rotated among star George Montgomery as the mayor, John Smith as blacksmith/deputy sheriff Lane Temple, and Totter, but when the writers failed to feature her character, she left the series. From 1962–63, she starred as homemaker Alice MacRoberts in the ABC situation comedy Our Man Higgins, with Stanley Holloway, Frank Maxwell, and Ricky Kelman.
Totter played a continuing role from 1972 to 1976, that of Nurse Wilcox, the efficient head nurse, in the CBS television series Medical Center. Her last acting role was in a 1987 episode of CBS's Murder, She Wrote, with Angela Lansbury.
She was married to Leo Fred, assistant dean of the UCLA School of Medicine from 1953 to his death in 1995; they had one child. Their granddaughter, Eden Totter, is a voice artist.
She was quoted in August 1999, "The bad girls were so much fun to play. I wouldn't have wanted to play Coleen's good-girl parts."